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Behind the Blue Wall: How my time in the LAPD Academy helped Shape My Series


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In 2013, I applied to join the Los Angeles Police Department for many reasons. Far too many to explore in this piece, but most notably, I wanted to be a positive force within a flawed department and maybe, hopefully, impart change. I spent six months preparing to enter the police academy. I exercised and got into peak physical shape, and I read everything I could on police work, the history of Los Angeles, and memoirs written by retired officers. When I received word that I was accepted into Class 7-14, I thought the worst part of training would be the brutal summer heat, but halfway into my training, I injured my lower back and was forced to resign. I was sent home, where I rehabbed, wallowed, and contemplated what to do next with my life. The worst part was that I hadn’t been writing during the months I’d spent training for the academy, and later, once I entered, the only thing I thought about was police work. I was afraid that I had lost the spark, squandered my flair for the written word, and wondered if and when it would return. I decided to revisit the books and films I had enjoyed before entering the police academy, hoping it would jumpstart my desire to write again. After months of reading and watching, the spark returned, and I started writing Under Color of Law and, later, its follow-up, Blue Like Me. While I read many titles and watched plenty of films, I credit three works with having an early influence on the Trevor Finnegan series.

L.A. Confidential

“Good cop” mythology has been prevalent in American popular culture dating back to the 1800s. As the embodiment of goodness, the idea of the valiant lawman is a deeply ingrained mythos. This lawman is white, heterosexual, justified in every action, and therefore is granted authority over anyone he encounters while conducting his work. Punishment for perceived wrongdoings is expected and comes without hesitation or mercy. In the 1990 noir L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy’s indelible Wendell “Bud” White, a pivotal character, embodies this archetype. Short-tempered and brutish, White is not an outlier in Ellroy’s 1950s LAPD. Rather, he is snuggly placed amongst two other centralized characters, Ed Exley and Jack Vincennes. These police officers greatly disdain anyone unfortunate enough to be labeled a suspect. Whether guilty or innocent, suspects meet the same fate: interrogation, torture, and death. We are made to believe that White and the actions of his fellow officers, no matter how deplorable or illegal, are justified. Not only because they are police officers, but they’re Anglo, male, and therefore, beyond reproach.

In Under Color of Law, it was important for me to portray a more diverse police department than its predecessors. Still, the police officers who make up the department are no less complicated and, at times, just as toxic as those Ellroy created. Trevor “Finn” Finnegan, the series’ central character, is a Black man who desires to make the department better by joining and isn’t alone. Other officers of color join for similar reasons; however, as Finn strives to become a police chief, he makes moral compromises, choices that haunt him and threaten to destroy his life. We later see the impact of those choices in Blue Like Me as he struggles to make amends for the role he played in the death of a young Black police recruit. While Finn may be the antithesis of Bud White, Bud’s actions and Finn’s inaction carry similar weight and enable a police force that, at times, damages the community far more than aids it.

Training Day

The 2001 neo-noir film Training Day offered a glimpse into the LAPD’s greatest fear—the “thug” with a badge. Thug was the most common term to describe Rafael Perez, one of the police officers at the center of the Rampart Scandal. Perez was implicated in various crimes, including the theft of narcotics from LAPD evidence lockers, drug distribution, shooting and paralyzing Javier Francisco Ovando, and framing him for murder (which Ovando was prosecuted for until his conviction was overturned.) Perez became the basis for Denzel Washington’s character Alonso Harris, in which Washington won an Oscar for his portrayal. The film depicts Harris as street-savvy, intelligent, and exhibiting a facility with all criminal classes: dope fiends, gangbangers, informants, and white suburban teens scoring dope in the barrio. If Alonso Harris were real, he’d be labeled a monster, an officer without regard for the law who discharges his weapon wantonly, robs and murders an informant, commits bribery, and sets his partner up to be murdered. But Alonso’s corruption is not isolated or aligned only with him. He is a product of a much larger moral decrepitude enabled by those with power. When Alonso needs a falsified warrant signed, he turns to a group of high-ranking officers—a whose who of LAPD power brokers he refers to as the “three wise men.” He pays these men to facilitate the judge’s signing of the warrant allowing him to go forth and plunder those that stand in his way.

The department asserted it had been duped by Perez, blindsided into believing he was of moral standing. Yet, numerous complaints were filed against Perez and other officers in Rampart Division long before the investigation ultimately sent him to prison. Perez deserved derision, as did many others, but he had been transfigured into a parable. It was a way to signal to incoming recruits, especially those of color, to take heed that the LAPD would not tolerate another Rafael Perez. He was the consummate blemish, an utter disgrace, and a cautionary tale. When developing Finn, I thought a lot about Rafael Perez. He was complicated, charismatic, highly intelligent, and relegated to “bad cop,” rightly so. With Finn, I avoided the hardlines of “good cop” and “bad cop.” He exists in a gray area, which threatens to grow darker the longer he remains a cop. Finn’s willingness to violate LAPD policy and commit illegal acts for what he perceives as the “right” reasons is a slippery slope. Yet, he uses two criteria when evaluating his choices—will it restore justice? And will it advance his career, putting him closer to becoming a police chief? His need to restore justice is carried into Blue Like Me, which sees Finn working as a private investigator exposing corrupt cops. And unlike Rafael Perez and his fictional rendering, Alonso Harris, Finn never loses his soul and fights to preserve it no matter the cost.

Inner City Blues by Paula L. Woods

Paula L. Woods’ debut novel, Inner City Blues, marked a shift in detective fiction and police procedurals from white male dominance to a woman of color. The central character, Charlotte Justice, is a Black woman who serves in the Robbery-Homicide Division during one of the most tumultuous times in L.A. history—the 1992 Uprising. What’s striking about Justice is that she carries the weight of the entire ordeal on her shoulders: watching the burning and looting of her favorite retail stores, having to prevent her colleagues from killing those out after curfew, and contending with blatantly racist officers, who at one point suggest rioters angered by the acquittal of Rodney King’s assailants, would sexually assault and kill her if given a chance. Throughout the novel, Justice’s alienation and isolation are palpable and attributed to her being Black and a woman in a majority white male LAPD. She faces unspeakable abuses from officers: racial slurs, sexual harassment, and physical violence. Yet, to report it would mean the end of her career—a reality then and now—and the need to serve her community far outweighs her pride or safety. The Black community is less trusting of all officers, even those a part of the diaspora. When wearing the badge, Justice is seen as “other.” She’s not entirely of the community, and community members, even her brother, questions her allegiance. What’s striking is how Justice navigates the many challenges while working to solve a murder. The victim: former radical Cinqué Lewis, the man responsible for the deaths of Justice’s husband and daughter. Justice is tasked to investigate Cinqué’s death, and she’s quietly relieved he’s dead. In the end, Justice succeeds while maintaining her place in LAPD’s collectivist culture, though it’s not without moral ambiguity and strife in her personal life and career.

Inner City Blues was an early inspiration for Under Color of Law and Blue Like Me. It offered a glimpse into the LAPD’s culture from the point of view of a Black female, and it showed how wearing a badge can be an overwhelming burden for officers, especially those of color. Like Charlotte Justice, Finn is seen as “other.” His father, a retired LAPD officer, thinks little of him. Not because he’s a detective but because he feels Finn hasn’t done enough to improve how the department treats Black officers and the Black community, which adds to Finn’s feelings of alienation. Black officers can feel especially wary because being Black and successful in the LAPD requires skills outside of being a good cop: code-switching, walking fine lines, having thick skin, and even being invisible. These are the struggles some Black officers undergo in the name of blue religion. But While writing the Trevor Finnegan series, the LAPD’s long-standing collectivism displayed in Inner City Blues was at the forefront of my mind as other facets of police culture, such as moral decrepitude, institutional racism, and justice-seeking. In both novels, these facets are manifested in various ways, causing Finn to face moral conundrums. In Under Color of Law, if he tells the truth about the beating of a Black suspect, he’ll face alienation from his fellow cops and inhibit career advancement. In Blue Like Me, he can either abandon his potentially corrupt ex-partner or continue working with her to solve the case of two murdered cops, one being a close family friend, likely killed by the same perpetrator. In both instances, he sets his morals aside but never escapes the consequences of doing so.

While writing the Trevor Finnegan series, I routinely ask myself: What if I had given up writing to become a police officer? What would my life have been like? Whom would I have become? I wouldn’t descend into the darkness like Rafael Perez or his fictional counterpart, Alonso Harris, but how would I manage when facing a “Bud White”? I thought of Charlotte Justice’s challenges and wondered if I’d have the fortitude to break rank and call out corruption and civil rights violations. Would I be able to face the fallout and reprisal? Throughout Finn’s cannon, he’ll wrestle with many of the same questions that have plagued me. Still, the central question will always be: If departments are societal microcosms populated by individuals with vast motives for desiring power, what happens when these people wield that power in destructive ways?

As Finn wrestles with these questions, his campaign for progress and improvement will be challenged. Since Under Color of Law was set in 2014 and Blue Like Me in 2016, Finn exists in the not-so-distant past. Progress, or lack thereof, will shape future stories. Some police departments will improve, while others will fall short of their mandates. Society will continue to be fickle, succumb to apathy, and then rally when another recorded tragedy goes viral. But as Finn’s architect, I’ve created him to be hopeful, and I share that hope because it’s the only healthy option.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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