In February, just after Christopher Dorner embarked on a killing rampage that left four people dead and three others wounded, he posted to the Web a rambling manifesto outlining numerous grievances. He sought vengeance, he wrote, against officers in the Los Angeles Police Department whom he blamed for costing him his job with the department.
Some of Dorner's assertions were easily dismissed. He claimed, for example, that he was fired for reporting that his supervisor had illegally kicked an arrestee, which simply wasn't true. But the manifesto also alleged a kind of virulent racism within the LAPD that had a familiar ring: It was exactly the sort of thing I used to hear regularly from the black officers I represented.
Nothing, of course, can explain or excuse Dorner's murderous rampage. But his actions didn't necessarily negate his allegations about entrenched racism in the department. In the aftermath of his death, it was important to determine whether he had experienced discrimination at the LAPD.
Dorner wasn't old enough to have seen what so many officers did during the department's most shameful years, which stretched from the 1950s to the 1980s. I represented many clients who worked for the department then, including a black lieutenant who was told 40 years ago by his white partner, "Nigger, get in the car and don't say a thing." The officer then bellowed at him that "niggers don't back you up!"
Earl Paysinger, the LAPD's current assistant chief for operations, describes how, as a new recruit more than 40 years ago, he reached for the dispatch radio and a racist commander bellowed, "Nigger, don't ever touch that radio." Back in racism's heyday, Tom Bradley, Jesse Brewer, Paysinger, Fred Booker, Homer Broome, Bernard C. Parks and dozens of other stellar black pioneers in the LAPD all faced vicious hostility.
The department had changed dramatically by the time Dorner joined it in 2000. It seemed difficult to believe he had encountered the level of racial hostility he described in his manifesto, which claimed things "had gotten worse" since "the Rodney King days." But was it possible he had bumped up against the remnants of those old attitudes?
After carefully examining the evidence, I've concluded he did not; that he simply used race as a convenient excuse for his failings. Many black officers in the department have drawn the same conclusion. As Paysinger told me, "Dorner twisted our history of pain and sacrifice to use for his own sick personal agenda of self-aggrandizement."
Here's why I concluded that Dorner fabricated many of his grievances.
First, there's his story that he was fired because he reported an officer for illegally kicking an arrestee. Dorner wrote that the kicks were vigorous and left visible marks on the man's cheek, but doctors reported no such injuries. Moreover, Dorner not only didn't make an official report of the alleged assault at the time, it appears he told no one at all about the incident until after he learned that his training officer was giving him failing marks. At that point, he offered irrational and inconsistent reports about why he hadn't reported the kicks earlier. My experience is that even if a cop fears reporting a superior, she or he usually tells medical personnel, an outside supervisor or trusted friends and fellow officers.
Dorner also alleged a conspiracy against him by the Internal Affairs division. Here again, it was important to carefully examine the possible merit of his complaint, given the department's history of biased internal investigations. I recall one case, for example, in the 1990s, when officers tried to ruin the career of a top black female lieutenant in Foothill Division. After investigating, then-Chief Willie Williams concluded that the Internal Affairs division colluded with some white sergeants in the Foothill Division who had targeted the lieutenant. As Williams wrote in his findings in the case, the incident "perverted the machinery of Internal Affairs" to "submarine" the career of the lieutenant.
In Dorner's case, I just didn't find those kinds of conflicts of interest or relationships between Internal Affairs personnel and Dorner's supervisors. Instead, I found that Dorner had a history of making excuses and telling lies to cover his failures in the Police Academy and on the force. This seemed to be one more example of that. Black cops know which white cops are racist, and they will tell you when asked. But Dorner's supervisor had no reputation for brutality or racism.
Dorner may well have felt devastated when he was pushed out of the LAPD. But in accusing the department and its officers of racism, he wrongly and falsely appropriated the hostility encountered by LAPD's black pioneers. And he was denigrating the very real changes to the department that have come since, changes that have continued under the city's current police chief, Charlie Beck, who works every day to reinforce racially tolerant and just policing.
We still have a long way to go, but the LAPD's progress is nonetheless remarkable. One measure of the improvement became clear at the time Dorner was on the loose. When black residents of the Nickerson Gardens housing project learned that Dorner had targeted cops they knew through the Community Safety Partnership policing (a unit in which cops get promoted for helping community members and avoiding arrests), they volunteered to protect the officers on Dorner's list.
Poor black housing project residents volunteering to protect LAPD officers? Now that's progress.
Connie Rice is a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles. She reviewed the LAPD's report on the Dorner case in advance of its publication, as well as voluminous background material gathered for its preparation.