L.A. Confidential follows the corrupt and brutal police department of the City of Angels during a crime wave courtesy of big time gangster (or so we are told). As a reporter asks in the opening voice over, “How can organized crime exist in this city with the best police force in the world?” The answer is because the best police force in the world has taken over the organization.
Every officer believes themselves to be above the law as dictated by both the government and society. They use their influence and their badges to get out of the questionable situations they so often find themselves in, situations that would lead to an arrest and most likely a beating had a civilian been found in their place. The D.A. and Commissioner are trying to restore the image of the L.A.P.D., transforming the public perception of their officers from ignorant, fat brutes, to “clean-cut,” intelligent, reasonable men. Edmund Exley looks to be the perfect example of just that. Exley has a weakness though; he can be easily pushed around by the fierce and forceful code held by the other officers. To compensate for his lack of friends on the force, he finds a way to hold power over his coworkers. When the press captures evidence of the assault on several Mexican prisoners committed by a whole slew of officers, Exley essentially blackmails the department to achieve his goal of becoming a Lieutenant Detective.
As the department does its best to uphold the clean image set by Exley’s work with the Night Owl café murders, another side of the force led by Captain Dudley are sticking to the old methods. Dudley explicitly tells Exley that he is unfit to be a detective because he refuses to plant evidence on suspects, beat confessions out of them, or even shoot them in the back to eliminate the chance of a good lawyer proving their innocence. Dudley however uses such methods not to uphold justice, but to manipulate criminals and police alike so that he may remain the kingpin of organized crime in Los Angeles.
We want our police to have enough freedom so that yards of red tape do not keep them from maintaining peace and upholding justice, but we need regulations so that civilians and those suspected or convicted of any and all crimes are protected within their rights. A moral ambivalence blurs this ideal compromise in instances like that presented in L.A. Confidential. Of course officers of the law should uphold it and the system they are a part of; they should not use the tactics of criminals to fight fire with fire. We want officers to be above the viciousness of those that commit such heinous crimes, but when we watch the three young men being shot and beaten for kidnapping and raping a woman, we feel as though “justice” is just what they got as Officer White tells Exley. How do we confront this conflict? Do we do as White and Exley do in the film and utilize both passive lawfulness and aggressive intimidation? The exercise of both methods works well for the L.A.P.D. in the film, but would it work in reality?