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Dorner manhunt: What does the public have the right to know?

As police searched for ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner, the media and public bombarded them with questions about the case. But just how much is law enforcement obligated to share with the public?

By Staff writer / February 14, 2013

San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies and California Highway patrolmen block the turnoff to Glass Road, where fugitive ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner has died in the ruins of a burned-out cabin, in Angelus Oaks in the San Bernardino National Forest Wednesday. Throughout the 10-day manhunt for Dorner, reporters and the general public bombarded law enforcement with questions about its investigation.

Reed Saxon/AP

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Los Angeles

Throughout the 10-day manhunt for ex-Los Angeles Police Department officer Christopher Dorner, reporters and the general public bombarded law enforcement with questions about its investigation. How did the final hideout cabin burn? How did Mr. Dorner turn up in a condo 20 yards from the sheriff's mountain command post? Why was a van carrying a grandmother on a newspaper route strafed by police gunfire? 

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But as the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department abruptly ended its Wednesday afternoon press conference amid a rising volley of unanswered questions, the question arises: Is it fair to expect all these issues to be addressed?  

That depends on who you ask, suggest experts in the ethics of law enforcement. Each side has such different priorities when it comes to unraveling answers after a crime has taken place that conflict is almost guaranteed, says Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia and a former police officer in Maryland.

“There is a difference between a right to know and a need to know,” says Professor Burke, suggesting that in a 24/7 culture of impatience, "where people stand in front of their microwaves and say 'hurry,' " law enforcement is often in an impossible position. “They want to present themselves as transparent,” he says, just as LAPD Chief Charlie Beck did early in the Dorner investigation. But, then, he points out, they also have a duty to the investigation itself. 

“They cannot put out information when they have barely begun their own investigation into what actually happened at a crime scene,” he says. “This is an active, ongoing investigation into many crime scenes by multiple jurisdictions,” he says, adding that meaningful answers may be far off.

But some answers are obvious and should be immediate, says Los Angeles forensic psychiatrist and expert legal witness, Carole Lieberman.  “It is not too early to question the police's handling of the rampage,” she wrote in an e-mail.  

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