When undercover Detective Frank Lyga saw a gun pointed toward him from another car window, he drew his weapon and shot twice, killing the driver. Soon he knew that he was in big trouble. The occupant had been Kevin Gaines, an off-duty police officer and also a member of the LAPD. To make matters more explosive, Gaines was an African American. In the wake of the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson trials, the situation was ripe for controversy.

The story of corruption within the LAPD will strike many as a contemporary version of L.A. Confidential. It is the old story of dishonest police officers on the take, abusing their power, and living beyond their means. Unlike L.A. Confidential, however, this story is real. For the past several years the LAPD has been involved in a massive intra-department scandal involving a road rage shooting death, connections to the infamous Death Row Records, and theft of confiscated narcotics. Through interviews with police officers, district attorneys, and community activists, FRONTLINE pieces together this strange and disturbing tale of present-day corruption on the LAPD.

Gaines’ death appeared to be another straightforward case to prosecutors: white-racist cop kills an African American in a road rage incident. The case, and the fall out from it, would quickly become much more complicated. A number of phone calls reported that Gaines had pulled his gun on other motorists. This led investigators to his private life, and it became obvious that he was spending beyond his police salary. They also discovered that he had also been living with the estranged wife of Suge Knight, the president of the Death Row Records. This set off warning signals among police officers, many who viewed the gansta rap scene as synonymous with criminal activity. It began to appear that Gaines and other officers were on the payroll of Death Row.

A seemingly unrelated bank robbery, involving two men and an insider, would further muddy the waters. The nervous insider soon implicated David Mack, another Los Angeles police officer and friend of Kevin Gaines. Mack and Gaines had both been confidants of Suge Knight, and had been present during private Death Row parties. More puzzling was the presence of a 1996 black Chevy Impala SS in Mack’s garage, the same make as the car identified during the drive-by shooting and murder of rapper Biggie Smalls in 1998. Detectives hoped that another officer under indictment, a friend of Mack’s who was also involved with Death Row Records, would tie together the loose ends. Instead, his confessions would embroil the department in accusations of false arrests, excessive force, and tainted evidence.

The LAPD would love to put this huge mess—meaning the last ten years—behind them and have seen it in their interest to corporate with FRONTLINE. No one, though, really explains why so many bad cops have become part of Los Angeles’ finest in the first place. The idea that a few bad apples made the whole department look bad doesn’t seem particularly convincing following the Rodney King case; the department has had multiple problems for some time, but little has been done to solve them. How could narcotics be repeatedly stolen from a crime lab and go undetected? How could officers tamper with evidence, make false arrests, and terrorize certain neighborhoods without being exposed? How could 30-40 officers be on the payroll of Death Row Records without raising eyebrows?

LAPD Blues isn’t likely to make anyone in a major city feel safe or inspire young children—as Dragnet once did—to become police officers. Still, police officers are needed in a city that at times has been literally besieged. Last year crime increased and gang related murders rose from 136 to 331 in Los Angeles, a 143% increase. Despite the need, few show interest in joining a police force where morale is so low that a number of officers have decided to resign. The only positive step forward has been the Federal Court’s decision to supervise the LAPD in order to implement a number of changes (changes requested as early as 1992). LAPD Blues draws a frightening portrait of a sometimes-overzealous police force, overwhelmed with corruption, and strapped with the daunting task of rehabilitating its own image while continuing to fight crime.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

For more information about this or other FRONTLINE programs go to www.pbs.org/frontline/


Michael Kirk—Director/Producer
Rick Young—Producer
Peter J. Boyer—Correspondent
David Fanning—Executive Producer



Review by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

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