As a ride-along photographer with the LAPD, Joseph Rodriguez captured first hand the work of one of America's most notorious police forces.
As a ride-along photographer with the LAPD, photographer Joseph Rodriguez captured first hand the work of one of America's most notorious police forces.
Rife with systemic abuses of power, the Los Angeles Police Department’s brutalization of Black and Latinx communities came to a head when four cops charged with assaulting Rodney King were found not guilty in April 1992, sparking off the LA Riots.
That June, Willie Williams became the first Black Chief of the LAPD after Daryl Gates was forced to resign. Recognizing the power of publicity, Williams gave the New York Times Magazine unprecedented access to the LAPD in an effort to sell the public “A Kinder Gentler Cop.”
In September 1994, the Times commissioned photographer Joseph Rodriguez to ride along with members of the LAPD across the city and around the clock over a period of two weeks. A native New Yorker, Rodriguez had been in Los Angeles for two years working on a project that would become East Side Stories: Gang Life in East LA (powerHouse Books, 1998).
“It was an eye-opener,” Rodriguez says of his time with law enforcement, which has been compiled in the forthcoming book, LAPD 1994 (The Artist Edition), a photographic expose of his time with members of the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit, the subject of the 1988 film Colors, the Rampart Division, and the 77th Street Division in South Central and Watts.
“It was still the era when babies were being shot and there were gangs all over the city. [The LAPD] were like another gang to me. However, this is a hard job. We covered murder and a lot of domestic violence. When you look at all these photographs and see what they have to do on a daily basis, it does jade you.”
On the street, things happened fast. Rodriguez focused on the lessons of famed photojournalist Weegee to get in the middle of the action and make the picture. “But shooting in color on Kodachrome with flash at night — I can’t begin to tell you how hard that was. It’s hit or miss,” he says with a wry laugh.
Covering criminal justice throughout his career, Rodriguez brings a profound sense of empathy to the work, which is rooted in the early experiences of his life. “These were people I grew up with in terms of the chaos,” he says.
“I know what it was like to be in the back seat of a police car in handcuffs. I’ve been there. I went to Rikers Island two times. When you see the homeless addict, I know what that is. I think about my mother, my stepfather who was a junkie, the shit we went through as kids.
After completing the assignment and returning to New York, Rodriguez experienced a bout of PTSD. “I was a nervous wreck. I went really deep. East Side Stories and LAPD was the same: you embed yourself into this world with all this ugliness because you know that some day this work may be important. That someday is now.”
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