In the dead of the night, a tactical police force drives a tank armed with a metal battering ram through the front door of a South Los Angeles home purported to be a drug dealer’s. That's the grim opening scene of last weekend’s box office hit, "Straight Outta Compton."
The music biopic about the rise of the California act N.W.A. features rowdy hip hop concerts, scantily clad groupies and rampant drug use. But the flick from rappers Dr. Dre and Ice Cube also takes a timely look at police brutality, particularly the Los Angeles Police Department's reputation for aggressive and overbearing policing of black communities in the 1980s and '90s.
Nearly three decades after N.W.A.’s infamously anti-police brutality records swept the nation, the LAPD has sought to make over its racist image and win over the trust of minorities in recent years by adopting body-worn cameras for officers, hiring a more diverse force and training for community-oriented policing strategies. Despite the changes, the department still faces allegations of rampant brutality and estrangement from the communities it serves. Police Chief Charlie Beck has been ordered by a federal judge to answer questions about the death of an unarmed black man killed by police last year. And while city gang violence and complaints about systemic police abuse are on the decline, activists have held heated demonstrations in recent months to call for Beck's resignation after a series of police-involved deaths.
"Straight Outta Compton," which is also the name of the seminal album that launched the entertainment careers of gangster rap pioneers Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, DJ Yella and the late Eazy-E, features several brutal interactions between LAPD officers and the city's black youth. In one scene, the five African-American members of N.W.A. are shown taking a break from recording outside of their Torrance, California, studio when two Los Angeles officers, one black and one white, approach and order them to lie on the ground. It isn't until Jerry Heller, their white manager, intervenes that the officers allow the young men to return to the studio. The demeaning interaction, along with arrests and other rough encounters with city police depicted in the film, inspired the group's controversial anti-police brutality song, “F--- tha Police.” The song came to symbolize a culture in Los Angeles that saw predominantly black and Latino communities subjected to unwarranted searches, assaults and false allegations by police.
"Straight Outta Compton" also shows the N.W.A. rappers living through the deadly Los Angeles riots in 1992 after the police beating of Rodney King. In the LAPD’s long history, few events stand out like the riots sparked by the acquittal of four officers in the videotaped beating of King, a black motorist who became a civil rights and racial injustice symbol. King was stopped after a high-speed chase in Los Angeles and was kicked, punched and Tasered by officers. The riots after their acquittal lasted for six days, during which 53 people died, 2,000 were injured and more than $1 billion in damages was sustained from widespread arson and looting.
It wasn’t until years later, when the department was ordered by federal authorities in 2000 to clean up organized corruption on its ranks that the 146-year-old city police force acknowledged change was needed. The Christopher Commission, a panel created by then-Mayor Tom Bradley to examine the LAPD’s structure and operation, put a spotlight on officers' widespread use of excessive force and the failure of management to discipline the ranks properly. The report prompted the resignation of Chief Daryl Gates and a policy change that required the appointment of a new chief every five years. Previously, the chief could serve indefinitely.
Gates’ departure preceded the arrival of William Bratton, who is currently the commissioner of New York Police Department. Sworn in 2002, Bratton employed his famous "broken windows" focus on low-level crime in Los Angeles that saw a drastic reduction in violent crime. Bratton also diversified the department so officers looked more like the communities they policed.
"It took eight years of hard work by Bratton, prodding from reform organizations such as the Advancement Project and the hiring of a diverse new police force to erase Gates' legacy and give the LAPD back to the people of Los Angeles," Joe Domanick, a California policing historian, wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2010.
With Beck’s arrival in 2009, community-oriented policing became a strategy for a reduction of gang-related violence in Los Angeles, according to several reports. Community policing, which requires officers to build trust through foot patrols and neighborhood relationships, came as Beck also created the city’s “Urban Peace Academy.” That program certifies former gang members to become intervention specialists to stem community violence. Beck also prioritized equipping officers with body-worn cameras to increase the perception of transparency on the force and hired an liaison officer for the lesbian, gay and transgender communities of Los Angeles.
Activists began calling for Beck's dismissal after the August 2014 shooting death of Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old unarmed black man in South Los Angeles. The LA Police Commission later found police had no reason to stop and detain Ford, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Since Ford’s shooting, at least two other police-involved shootings have drawn public outrage and calls for the involved officers’ firing and prosecution, prompting Beck to promise to take community concerns seriously.
“I know there are public concerns about this particular officer-involved shooting, as there are any time an unarmed individual is shot by a police officer,” Beck said during a press conference about the May shooting of Brendon Glenn, an unarmed black man in Venice. “I am also very concerned about this shooting.”
But aside from holding community forums and reassigning the involved officers to nonfield duty during investigations, Beck has not moved swiftly enough for activists, friends and the families of Ford and Glenn. U.S. District Judge Margaret Nagle last month ordered Beck to take questions in a formal deposition about Ford’s shooting. The judge said Beck’s statements and the police commission’s findings in the shooting were contradictory and did not alleviate community concerns about accountability in the force.
“I know that Chief Beck likes to talk about how things are great with black people in South LA but they’re really not,” Jasymyne Cannick, a Los Angeles organizer of the national Black Lives Matter movement, a grassroots campaign against police brutality, told a local radio news program in June.