R. Reese, Cal Poly Pomona, Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, September 2001.



Whistleblowing into a Tangled Web: Serpico, LA Confidential, and the LAPD


The recent Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Rampart Scandal and the films Serpico and LA Confidential are strikingly similar. Rarely has the intersection of criminal justice and popular culture been so magnified. The LAPD’s Rampart Scandal has unfolded like a sordid Hollywood drama. In the case of Serpico and LA Confidential, Hollywood reaches beyond the bounds of commercialism to deal with the reality of police corruption, and more specifically, whistleblowing. A whistleblower is often faced with a plethora of ethical dilemmas. Perhaps the most fundamental dilemma is whether to do the right thing or not. These films poignantly capture the multiple organizational variables that inhibit one from doing the right thing within police departments. This paper examines the whistleblowers of each of these police stories.


The main character in the Rampart Scandal is Raphael Perez, an LAPD officer for 10 years. He is the whistleblower who exposed the division’s excessive abuses. In 1999, Perez pled guilty of taking the cocaine from an evidence locker. He bargained for a reduced sentence in return for agreeing to tell all to the LAPD and district attorney about all of the “bad deeds” that both he and other fellow officers had been involved in beginning in 1995. After his testimony, it was found that innocent people had been charged with crimes they had not committed and were sentenced to prison terms. Since then, at least thirty LAPD officers, including four sergeants, have been relieved of duty, suspended, fired or have quit in connection with the department’s probe. Furthermore, at least sixty-seven convictions have been overturned. Some seventy officers are under investigation for committing crimes, for misconduct, or for covering up such activities (McDermott, 2000).


Hollywood’s police dramas have acted as presages about the Rampart Scandal. More specifically, the films Serpico and LA Confidential have detailed the widespread corruption that exists in some of our nation’s police departments. A careful examination of these films shows that the corruption of the LAPD in the 1950s depicted in LA Confidential and the corruption of the New York Police Department in the 1970s, depicted in Serpico looks the same. In many police scandals there is someone who unveils the corruption. This person, the whistleblower, will guide the following discussion.

Serpico, played by Al Pacino, is a conscientious cop who is consistently pressured by his organizational culture to participate in various illicit activities. In LA Confidential Guy Pearce plays a cop name Exley who is in a similar situation. Unlike Serpico, Exley is driven by selfish ambitions. Nevertheless, both characters learn the stark consequences of whistleblowing. This paper will examine the phenomenon of whistleblowing by examining each of the main characters in these films.

When an employee makes any disclosure of legal violations, mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority, or endangers public health or safety, whether the disclosure is made within or outside the formal chain of command, the act is known as whistleblowing (Gordon and Milakovich, 1998, p.495). The False Claim Act was originally enacted enacted by President Lincoln’s Administration. It was known as the “Lincoln Law.” The “Lincoln Law” was created to stem military Fraud during the Civil War. The original law allowed a whistleblower to collect 50% of any settlement that the government collected on a case (www.appsmits.com/-ervam/ragnar/ Mesg87.html).

Notwithstanding the period of the Civil War, whistleblowing is a relatively new phenomenon. According to Glazer and Glazer (1989),

"whistleblowers are a historically new group. No doubt there were earlier workers who exposed practices that would harm the public, as there were thousands of workers who went on strike to improve their own wages and circumstances. But only in the period since the 1960s has there been a continual stream of employees who do not act primarily out of self-interest but concentrate on exposing policies that could endanger or defraud the public."

Serpico and LA Confidential give us an interesting backdrop to discuss this new phenomenon. Serpico and LA Confidential have more in common than just being two good cop movies. Both films tell candid tales of the life of a police officer in a major city. Although these movies were made approximately 25 years a part the contextual background is similar. The movie Serpico is a real story about a New York police officer, Frank Serpico, who initiates a courageous crusade to expose the systematic corruption in the New York Police Department. Al Pacino plays Frank Serpico in this 1973 Sidney Lumets film.

Lumets captures, in a documentary-like style, the organizational culture that exists inside many police departments. The New York Police Department culture is colored with machismo, racism, and corruption. Few films in American history have had the socio-political impact of Serpico. The movie’s impact on police reform and whistleblowing in the workplace is comparable to the impact Upton Sinclair made on the social-political landscape when he wrote the “Jungle.”

LA Confidential is a police mystery set in Los Angeles in the 1950s. This film noir is based on a book written by James Ellroy. It too is about police corruption. The socio-political highlight of each film is that they are tales about two whistleblowers, Serpico and Officer Exley, and their motivations for doing the right thing.

In this film, we see Serpico as an average guy just trying to do his job. He routinely makes decisions that are guided by his conscious not his immediate environment. Serpico is a good cop trapped in a bad situation. Literature on organizational behavior stresses the importance of value congruence in organizations—suggesting that individuals should possess the same values espoused by the organization in which they are seeking to be a part. Serpico experiences dissonance because his value system is different from those of the informal organization.

Indeed, Serpico was lured to the police department by the ostensible mission of the department, “To Protect and Serve.” While Serpico treats the formal mission of the organization with acute seriousness, others abide by the more encompassing informal culture. The formal mission and the informal culture of the police department is at the foundation of Serpico’s perpetual frustration. Chester Barnard wrote in the Functions of the Executive that the influence of an organization’s informal culture could not be trivialized. In many cases, the informal culture of an organization is most significant (Barnard, 1938).

Intrinsic controls were used to socialize Serpico. Intrinsic controls are mechanisms put into place as an alternative to formal rules and regulations. The premise here is if an organization succeeds in inculcating conformance to its rules, there will be no need for formal intervention. Intrinsic controls produce conformance without monitoring. Loyalty to an organization is a significant element of intrinsic control. Serpico was easily socialized into the broad context of the police department. Indeed, he was loyal to the ostensible goals of the organization. However, it was the informal culture’s intrinsic controls that he steadfastly resisted (Gortner, Mahler, Nicholson, 1990).

One of the intriguing dimensions of Serpico is that he never compromises his values. His conscientiousness causes him to be ostracized and cast as a deviant. Everyday he faces the torment of being a team player. In the face of overwhelming pressure to conform, why does not Serpico give in? According to Glazer and Glazer (1989),

"Serpico was able to move ahead because he was already disenchanted and estranged. Unlike other police, he had never `shopped’ or taken any small bribes, which could have demoralized him. He never experienced the erosion of his personal values. He never became `bent.’ Equally important, he remained psychologically and socially distant from his peers. His loyalty remained to his early sense of what a police officer could be and to the formal regulations of his department"(p.55).

Although he is a good person, he in not a pious sanctified do-gooder. He possesses some of the same machismo as the rest of the cops. He is rugged, tough, and tempermental. However, what separates Serpico from others, is his ethics and public morality. According to Denhardt and Grubbs (1999), ethics involves a process by which we clarify right and wrong and act on what we take to be right (p.452). Morality involves practices and activities considered right or wrong and the values those practices reflect (p.453). Serpico has a genuine concern for the greater good of the public.

Public morality goes beyond concern for self, family, and immediate social groups. His actions are ethical because he does not step outside of the formal standard operating procedures that have been constructed for his duties. His legal obligation is a source of ethical obligation. As a public servant, he is sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. Serpico takes this pledge seriously. He shows a compassionate obligation to the law, the nation, and to democracy. The Board of Inquiry for the United Kingdom (1928) effectively captures the role of the civil servant in society when it stated, “The first duty of a civil servant is to give his undivided allegiance to the State at all times and on all occasion when the State has a claim on his service” (Stillman, 1995, p.460-462).

In an inconspicuous way, Serpico desires to be a change agent. He wants to change the organizational culture of his police department. Throughout the film it appears that Serpico is fighting a losing battle; indeed the institutional structure and organizational culture appears to be too immutable to change, too arrogant to listen, and too impersonal to care. F. William Howton states,

"The big organization dehumanizes the individual by turning him into a functionary. In doing so it makes everything possible by creating a new kind of man, one who is morally unbounded in his role as functionary…His ethic of the good soldier: take the order, do the job, do it the best way you know how, because that is your honor, your virtue, your pride-in-work" (Stilliman, 1995, p.460).

In the end, Serpico becomes disappointed and disillusioned after being set up and shot during a drug raid. He retires on a disability pension and leaves the country.

Officer Exley, in LA Confidential, complicates our understanding of him. For instance, he pushes away bribes, he’s intolerant of police brutality, and he acts within the formal rules of the organization. His values do not appear to be the same as the others in the department. Paradoxically, he is the most straight-laced, and at the same time, the most untrustworthy member of the department. He has no allies in the department and he is comfortable with this.

Like Serpico, Exley is estranged and socially distant from his co-workers. However, unlike Serpico, he appears to be playing his own game, not for the greatest good for the greatest number, but for himself. One vivid example in the film moves towards capturing the essence of Exley’s character. The “Bloody Christmas Riots” took place inside of the LAPD jailhouse. Several LAPD officers initiated violence on inmates. Exley, the substitute watch commander this night, fiercely protested this police brutality. During the riots, he was taken away and locked in a cell by two fellow officers. The media reported on the melee and an in investigation ensued. Exley was the only officer who had no problem “ratting” on his co-workers. During the trial of this event, Exley named names and was immediately promoted.

It is difficult to delineate Exley’s moral fortitude because his inclination for justice is ofuscated by his self-interest. It is clear from the very beginning of the film that Exley is career-minded and self-interested. Herein lies the slippery distinction between morals and ethics. While Exley may not be a morally righteous person, he proves to be ethical. With the one exception of giving into his lustful desires of a call girl, played by Kim Bassinger, Exley consistently distinguishes right from wrong and acts on what is right. However, his morality is dubious because one’s values and motives are bounded to this concept. Perhaps we identify more with Exley’s character because he does the right things but he is motivated by self-interest. This makes him less noble than Serpico but more real to us.

Towards the conclusion of the film he states that he came in to the force with the admirable intention of protecting and serving the people but something happened along the way. He is referring to his unremitting quest for power and prestige. At this point in the film, Exley reveals to us his shortcomings as a public servant. Indeed, he reveals to us that although he may have been acting within the boundaries of standard operating procedures, his motives are twisted. This is also the first time we see Exley pause for a moment of introspection. Before this point, Exley seems to execute his tasks without reflection or dissonance. Serpico, on the other hand, goes through intense periods of consternation. He toils over his disconnect with the culture of the department.

What makes Serpico the quintessential American hero is his unwavering commitment to do the right thing, his ethics and morals. His love for the law, his seriousness about protecting and serving the public, and his unwavering commitment to do the right thing is what makes Serpico the quintessential American hero. His acts of bravery and selflessness are what distance him from us. In a society that adamantly pressures us to conform, where selfishness is convention, we look up to people like Serpico as heroes because they possess qualities that we espouse in theory but can not measure up to in practice.


The LAPD’s Rampart Scandal is the real life version of Serpico and LA Confidential. In the Rampart Scandal, Raphael Perez and others were driven to corruption by money, racism, and power. In each of the scenarios, there is a police culture that is marked by an “us vs. them” philosophy. Moral/ethical leadership is weak and minorities are victimized. The focal point of the Rampart Scandal was the LAPD’s anti gang unit known as CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums).

During the mid-1980s, the Rampart area of Los Angeles experienced a significant increase in violent crimes involving gangs, drugs, and weapons. Consequently, the department created CRASH. Its main purpose was to make the area safer. Police officers were given wide discretion in meeting this objective and they were effective. Gang-related crime in the area fell from 1,171 in 1992 to 464 in 1999, a reduction that exceeded the citywide decline in violent crime over the same period (Report of the Rampart Independent Review Panel, 2000, p1).

These victories, however, came with consequences. By giving police officers the latitude to fight crime by any means necessary, the LAPD created a greater problem, police corruption. Raphael Perez has become the symbol of police corruption run amuck in the LAPD.

Perez possesses only a few things in common with Serpico and Exley. He was a police officer and he exposed police abuses. The similarities stop here. Although Exley possesses a selfishness, his behavior consistently falls within the letter of the law. Perez, however, admitted to hundreds of instances of perjury, fabrication of evidence and false arrests. He admitted to stealing drugs from police evidence lockers and reselling them on the street. He admitted stealing drugs, guns, and cash from gang members.

Perez appears to be a genuine rogue cop. He possesses no noble or altruistic sense of purpose. There is little that sets him apart from the criminals he pursued. He was not motivated to blow the whistle on the Rampart division because he had an epiphany. He pled guilty of police abuse and agreed to tell all to the LAPD and district attorney in exchange for a lesser sentence. Unlike Serpico and Exley, Perez’s motives are simple to deconstruct. He was always motivated by the selfishness--a need for money and power. His behavior makes Serpico and Exley even more intriguing characters.


What should we have learned from the films Serpico and LA Confidential? In these examples, popular culture warned and prepared us for the periodic (but consistent) cases of police abuse and corruption in our country. "To Protect and Serve" is a ubiquitous motto for police departments nationwide. As agents of the government, police officers are sworn to "protect and serve" by upholding the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, the staunch protection of civil liberties is what separates the U.S. from totalitarian nations. Indeed, without the Bill of Rights our Constitution would be seriously flawed. The behavior of many police officers, especially in urban centers, is undermining democracy, civility and diminishing trust among significant sectors of the American public. It is the greatest threat to human rights in this country. "Racial profiling," excessive force, police brutality, and blatant disregard for civil liberties have magnified the flaws in our "democratic society." Serpico and LA Confidential should have put us on alert for these issues.

Perhaps these films should have taught us that one person can make a difference (however small) and that police abuse and corruption is still a part of American society. Police reforms have succeeded and failed simultaneously. Successful reforms have come in terms of more police oversight. People have come to realize that policing is too important to be solely the domain of police. With each high-profile case of police abuse, there is a small, incremental step toward police reform. It took the police brutality cases of Rodney King, Malice Green, Demetrius Dubose, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, Tyisha Miller, Irvin Landrum, Thomas Jones, and Timothy Thomas and the Rampart Scandal to create today's police reforms.

In the case of Serpico and LA Confidential, Hollywood gave us a superb opportunity to examine an important sector of our society. Indeed, it is this intersection of popular culture and reality that is the most intriguing.




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