Dorner case hinged on credibility
For a Los Angeles Police Department disciplinary panel, the evidence was persuasive: Rookie officer Christopher Jordan Dorner lied when he accused his training officer of kicking a mentally ill man during an arrest.
But when a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge examined the case a year later in 2010 as part of an appeal filed by Dorner, he seemed less convinced.
Judge David P. Yaffe said he was “uncertain whether the training officer kicked the suspect or not” but nevertheless upheld the department’s decision to fire Dorner, according to court records reviewed by The Times.
As the manhunt for the ex-cop wanted in the slayings of three people enters its sixth day, Dorner’s firing has been the subject of debate both within and outside the LAPD. An online manifesto that police attributed to Dorner claims he was railroaded by the LAPD and unjustly fired. His allegations have resonated among the public and some LAPD employees who have criticized the department’s disciplinary system, calling it capricious and retaliatory toward those who try to expose misconduct.
Seeking to address those concerns, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck announced this weekend that he was reopening the investigation into Dorner’s disciplinary case. “It is important to me that we have a department that is seen as valuing fairness,” Beck said.
LAPD records show that Dorner’s disciplinary panel heard from several witnesses who testified that they did not see the training officer kick the man. The panel found that the man did not have injuries consistent with having been kicked, nor was there evidence of having been kicked on his clothes.
A key witness in Dorner’s defense was the man’s father, who testified that his son told him he had been kicked by police. The panel concluded that the father’s testimony “lacked credibility,” finding that his son was too mentally ill to give a reliable account.
The online manifesto rails against the LAPD officials who took part in the review hearing and vows revenge. Police allege Dorner killed his own attorney’s daughter and her fiance last weekend in Irvine.
“Your lack of ethics and conspiring to wrong a just individual are over. Suppressing the truth will [lead] to deadly consequences for you and your family,” the manifesto says.
Dorner’s case revolved around a July 28, 2007, call about a man causing a disturbance at the DoubleTree Hotel in San Pedro. When Dorner and his training officer showed up, they found Christopher Gettler. He was uncooperative and threw a punch at one of the officers, prompting Dorner’s training officer, Teresa Evans, to use an electric Taser weapon on him.
Nearly two weeks later, Dorner walked into Sgt. Donald Deming’s office at the Harbor Division police station. There were tears in Dorner’s eyes, the sergeant later testified.
Deming gave the following account of what happened next:
“I have something bad to talk to you about, something really bad,” Dorner told him.
Evans, Dorner explained, had kicked Gettler once in the face and twice in the left shoulder or nearby chest area. Afterward, Dorner said, Evans told him not to include the kicks on the arrest report.
“Promise me you won’t do anything,” Dorner asked Deming.
“No, Chris. I have to do something,” Deming responded.
An internal affairs investigation into the allegation concluded the kicks never occurred. Investigators subsequently decided that Dorner had fabricated his account.
He was charged with making false accusations.
At the December 2008 Board of Rights hearing, Dorner’s attorney, Randal Quan, conceded that his client should have reported the kicks sooner but told the board that Dorner ultimately did the right thing.
He called the case against Dorner “very, very ugly.”
“This officer wasn’t given a fair shake,” Quan said, according to transcripts of the board hearing. “In fact, what’s happening here is this officer is being made a scapegoat.”
At the hearing, Dorner stuck to his story. Evans, he said, kicked Gettler once in the left side of his collarbone lightly with her right boot as they struggled to handcuff him. She kicked him once more forcefully in the same area, Dorner testified, and then much harder in the face, snapping Gettler’s head back. Dorner said he noticed fresh blood on Gettler’s face.
Dorner did not immediately report the kicks to a sergeant, he said, because he was asked only what force he had used, not what his partner had done. And as a rookie who had already filed complaints against fellow officers, he feared retaliation from within the department, Dorner testified.
Gettler’s father, Richard, testified that police eventually brought his son home and that he noticed a slight puffiness on his son’s face. His son told him he had been kicked by a police officer -- once in the face and twice in the chest, he said.
Richard Gettler said he was shocked but decided against calling police because the injury was minor and his son could not explain what prompted the officers to use force.
Gettler said that his son’s mental illness prevented the younger man from being a good witness and that he was easily scared and would often answer “yes” to everything.
Dorner’s attorney, Quan, presented a brief video he took of Christopher Gettler answering Quan’s questions at the attorney’s office. On the video, obtained by Fox 11 News, the younger Gettler agrees when asked whether he was kicked by a police officer and points to his left cheek, indicating that’s where he was struck. He says he was kicked once and that the officer was female and “almost black” with dark hair. He then corrects himself, saying she had light hair.
Evans is listed in department and court records as white with blond hair.
At the disciplinary hearing, Christopher Gettler could not give the current year and sometimes provided seemingly random answers to questions. He said he did not recall how he was hurt during the encounter with the officers and thought they had used a club on him.
Evans denied kicking Gettler. She had been placed on desk duty for about seven months during the department’s investigation and prevented from earning extra money outside the department. “It was very difficult on me personally,” she testified.
Dorner, she said, was having problems readjusting to police work after returning from a 13-month military deployment overseas. He told her that family members had noticed a change in him and that he would seek help for it, she testified. On one occasion, he started crying in their patrol car, she said.
On several evaluation forms, Evans rated Dorner as “satisfactory” but indicated he needed to improve in certain areas. At one point, she told him she would give him an “unsatisfactory” rating unless he improved. “He was upset,” she said.
Records show that Dorner reported the kicks a day after he received an evaluation in which Evans noted that he needed to show improvement in three categories, including the time it took to write reports, officer safety and use of common sense and good judgment.
She said Dorner had told her the department was a “racist organization,” which she said she reported to a supervisor. That supervisor, however, denied during the hearing that Evans told her that.
Three witnesses, including two hotel employees and a port police officer, testified that they did not see Evans kick Gettler. The port police officer recalled telling Dorner to fix his tie. But a photograph from the scene showed that Dorner was not wearing a tie.
The board’s three members -- two LAPD captains and a criminal defense attorney -- unanimously ruled against Dorner. They found that his claims lacked credibility and that he was motivated in part by his fear that his training officer would give him a poor evaluation that could end his career.
To fire Dorner, the board had only to conclude that it was more likely than not that he had made up his story about the kick.
From then on, it was up to Dorner to prove that the board was wrong, a burden that Yaffe and a subsequent appeals court found he did not meet.
Capt. Phil Tingirides, who chaired the board, declined to discuss specifics about the case, citing a state law that makes it a crime to disclose personnel information. But he defended his handling of the proceedings.
“I am meticulous and objective,” Tingirides said. “I take the responsibility very seriously. Before his board I had never met Christopher Dorner and didn’t know a thing about him. I went into that board with an open mind.... I am very comfortable with what we did and the way we did it.”