Film Analysis | Film Reviews

Devastating Blows

1 Dec , 1998  

Written by Julie Wolf | Posted by:

In 1993,'State of Emergency: Inside the Los Angeles Police Department' must have been shocking, even revelatory. Five years later, it remains powerful, if sadly familiar.
In 1993,"State of Emergency: Inside the Los Angeles Police Department" must have been shocking, even revelatory. Five years later, it remains powerful, if sadly familiar. While most Americans remember 1991’s horrifying Rodney King tape, Canner and Meltzer compile lesser-known footage of police brutality in Los Angeles, from the Watts riots of 1965 to the 1992 "rebellion" that followed the acquittal of the four white officers filmed beating King. In a disturbing 30 minutes, "State" documents the prevailing attitudes in the LAPD which not only let this brutality occur, but condone and even encourage it.

The documentary relies primarily on interviews and film footage to illustrate what was perceived in the early 90’s as an unbridgeable gap between the LAPD and the community. As with the Rodney King tape, visual images have tremendous impact: for example, the 1988 footage of police officers responding to a noise complaint at a house party results not in a stereo being turned down, but in a man being knocked unconscious by an officer. The most graphic images, to my mind, come from police training videos: in one, trainees learn the cord-cuff restraint, commonly called the hog-tie; the other shows the "taser dance," in which a suspect – or someone the police feel like stopping, anyway – is reeled in on an electrified "leash." Thus, the dehumanization, as one interviewee calls it, of the community in the eyes and at the hands of the LAPD is an undeniable, filmable fact.

In addition to visual images, the interviews and chyroned information (which stays onscreen long enough and in large enough print to be read) are riveting. Interview subjects range from police officers to police watchers to, in one case, a black man who describes the police practice of bringing black males as young as 13 to the police station not on charges, but to be fingerprinted, apparently for later use. Each interviewee iterates that police brutality in the LAPD is accepted, and acceptable – what Bill Pavelic, a 17-year veteran of the force, calls "the cowboy mentality [that] flourished during the era of Daryl Gates."

In looking at "State," it must be remembered that following the 1992 riots, Daryl Gates was replaced as chief of police by Willie Williams, who strove to instill a greater bond – any bond, really – between police and community. However, with no 1998 update, the documentary ends unsure of Williams’ effectiveness.

One of the challenges of a documentary such as this one, about a particular moment in history, is to keep it pertinent. Certainly police brutality did not begin or end in Los Angeles, or elsewhere, with Rodney King; in fact, just this year, in Springfield, MA, a white police officer was suspended for alleged excessive force against a black man. (The charges were later dropped.) By exposing the routine dehumanization of L.A.’s minority citizens, the video elucidates the gulf between authority and community across the country. In other words, LAPD practices affect class and race relations far from Los Angeles’ environs. By the end, however, any sense of universality is lost. The last ten minutes, though not set apart from the rest of the video in terms of structure, feel "local" to California, as the filmmaker begins to concentrate on "Community Demands" propositions, and the specific goals of citizens’ advocacy groups.

Despite this slight misstep near the conclusion, "State" never loses its focus. And if the viewer had any question about police brutality and dehumanization before, the list of unarmed victims of the LAPD that scroll before the credits should erase any doubt: In addition to the many Latino names were 22 John Does.

‘State of Emergency: Inside the Los Angeles Police Department’ is part of the Urban Emergency Series, and was funded in part by the Groton (MA) Arts Lottery Council. Elizabeth Canner and Julia Meltzer also made ‘Hands on the Verdict: The 1992 Los Angeles Uprising’ and Canner’s own recent documentary, ‘Deadly Embrace: Nicaragua, the World Bank and the I.M.F.,’ was featured at the Vermont International Film Festival in the Justice and Human Rights Call-for-Entry Competition Program I in October.

Copies of ‘State of Emergency’ can be purchased directly through the filmmaker. Send a check for $35 (includes shipping) to: Liz Canner, 229 North Hampton, Boston, MA 02118 or contact 617-266-2418 or lcan@tiac.net for more information.


'State of Emergency: Inside the Los Angeles Police Department' is part of the Urban Emergency Series, and was funded in part by the Groton (MA) Arts Lottery Council. Elizabeth Canner and Julia Meltzer also made 'Hands on the Verdict: The 1992 Los Angeles Uprising' and Canner’s own recent documentary, 'Deadly Embrace: Nicaragua, the World Bank and the I.M.F.,' was featured at the Vermont International Film Festival in the Justice and Human Rights Call-for-Entry Competition Program I in October.Copies of 'State of Emergency' can be purchased directly through the filmmaker. Send a check for $35 (includes shipping) to: Liz Canner, 229 North Hampton, Boston, MA 02118 or contact 617-266-2418 or lcan@tiac.net for more information.