Cheryl Dorsey faced a mirror in a Pasadena hair salon, at the beginning of an appointment that would eat up the whole morning and part of the afternoon. Her stylist, Ursula Simpson, carefully braided Dorsey’s locks before weaving in a spectacular lion’s mane of silver curls.
These things take time.
Dorsey could ill afford to spend half the day in a salon chair. She’s in demand now as a talking head on shows focused on the recent spate of police shooting deaths of black men and the hideous retaliation killings of officers in Dallas.
Dorsey, 58, brings a rare set of credentials to the conversation. She is a black mother of four sons who also happens to be a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department. She spent her career in uniform, rising to sergeant before she left in 2000.
I heard her on KPCC the other day and thought she brought a lot of credibility to the table, particularly on the subject of the Los Angeles Police Commission’s controversial 3-0 vote to exonerate officers involved in last year’s killing of Redel Jones, a 30-year-old black mother of two who had just robbed a South Los Angeles pharmacy. Jones, who wielded a knife, was shot in an alley after an officer ran toward her, got closer than he intended and could not back away when she raised her knife.
The officers violated a number of department rules — including engaging Jones while still in their car, failing to turn on their in-car camera, making simultaneous demands on her — but the shooting was ruled justified.
This did not totally compute with me. How do you not follow policy and then not be held responsible, at least in some way, when mayhem ensues?
Dorsey is less diplomatic: “They said the tactics were problematic, but the shooting was good. If the tactics are bad, everything that follows is bad. You knew she had a knife, you see her running down an alley. We are not taught to engage with a suspect when we are sitting in the car. We are not taught to run up on people who are armed. Had they not done that, Redel Jones would still be alive.”
A similar set of missteps occurred, as she sees it, before officers shot Alton Sterling, the Baton Rouge, La., man whose death earlier this month was caught on videotape.
“Officers responding to a man with a gun? Any rational officer would not run into a situation, tackle him, struggle with him and then say, ‘I had to shoot him because he was resisting.’ ”
Before meeting Dorsey, I decided to read her 2013 memoir, “Black & Blue.”
She was inspired to write after Christopher Dorner’s 2013 killing rampage across Southern California and the revelation of his “manifesto,” a chronicle of perceived mistreatment at the hands of the LAPD, which had fired him in 2009. Like many officers, Dorsey could relate — not to Dorner’s actions, but to his rage and sense of powerlessness.
“I didn’t know him,” she said. “I don’t condone what he did. But I thought maybe I should speak about what’s going on so that nobody else gets there.”
The Dorner tragedy, by the way, also occasioned a spasm of self-reflection in the LAPD. Chief Charlie Beck surveyed his troops and discovered a widespread perception that the LAPD dispensed discipline unfairly, based on skin color, rank and nepotism.
Dorsey was the kind of cop who absolutely loved her job (“I loved to issue traffic citations,” she writes. “I really did. Don’t judge me.”) but had conflicts with colleagues and bosses because of her gender, her race, her attitude and the LAPD’s infamous crony culture.
She refused a captain’s demand, for instance, to cut her long fingernails because there was no department policy about nails. “I pride myself,” she writes, “in being totally responsible for the department adopting a policy on the length of officers’ fingernails.” Once the policy was on the books, she cut her nails.
In 1998, she writes, she nearly lost her job after the LAPD internal affairs department discovered that she had called 911 in Altadena to report confrontations with her then-husband, also an LAPD officer.
She was accused of “unnecessarily causing the response of an outside agency,” and of lying to the LAPD investigator. She believes her job was saved only because a respected mentor testified on her behalf.
Two years later, almost to the minute she qualified, she retired with a full pension.
In the salon, I mentioned how befuddled I’ve been by all the calls for “hard conversations” about race relations and policing in this country. Haven’t we been talking ourselves hoarse? And haven’t the killings continued apace?
“Yes, that’s disingenuous,” Dorsey said. “I think people are tired of talking about it. We want some action. We want accountability.”
She belongs to a new group, the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, Reform and Accountability, which is focused on rooting out the institutionalized or unconscious racism that affect how police departments interact with people of color.
“We are not a group of disgruntled black police officers that are just bellyaching,” she said. “We are progressive in our thinking. We want real change, and we have some ideas.”
The group, which supports Black Lives Matter, offers a counterpoint to what is often the knee-jerk defensiveness from police unions. “Police unions, a lot of times, say, ‘You have never put on the uniform; you are not qualified,’ ” Dorsey said. “We say, ‘Hold on. We do understand. And we see a better way.’ ”
They were not included in the meeting President Obama hosted the other day with police chiefs across the country, who accused him of not appearing sensitive enough to the pressures police face.
Nor were they invited to his prime-time town hall meeting Thursday with police supporters and black citizens whose lives have been upended by police shootings. Many critics felt the event focused too much on police hardship, not enough on police reform.
But we cannot let the tragedy in Dallas, nor Sunday’s horrendous police killings in Baton Rouge, obscure the larger issue this country is facing.
“When we see white officers dealing with white suspects, they have conversations,” Dorsey said. “Those militia people are aggressive, and the officers will spend so much time explaining things to them. But they don’t extend those same courtesies to black people.”
Why is that? Until we can answer that question honestly, all the talking and town halls in the world are not going to change a thing.