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Legacy of Christopher Dorner case: rekindled distrust, resentment of police

When ex-cop Christopher Dorner pursued his fatal vendetta against Los Angeles Police Department, his cause resonated with some in the black community. Why has the old rift between police and minorities been so hard to heal?

By , Staff writer , Staff Writer

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    Members of the LAPD stood guard as a crowd gathered after a police pursuit involving bank robbery suspects in South Los Angeles last September.
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One strange, sad, but telling aspect of the recent manhunt for Christopher Dorner, the fired Los Angeles cop who pursued a fatal vendetta against the city police department, is that many African-Americans in Los Angeles and elsewhere cheered him on via Twitter and Facebook and in public online forums.

"Some people have been putting extraordinarily vile things on websites and e-mailing vile things to the police department in support of this guy," says Comdr. Andrew Smith of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

Apparently swayed by Mr. Dorner's grievances against the department, which he posted online in a "manifesto" accusing the LAPD of racial bias, corruption, and injustice, many of the e-mail senders held up Dorner, who was black, as a kind of hero for striking back at the police – never mind that he killed four people and injured several others before his campaign of targeted assassinations ended in a fiery showdown with authorities.

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The e-mail comments pouring into the LAPD, says Smith, were rife with vitriol and "reprehensible things about the police."

What is going on here? After all, much has changed at the LAPD since the 1991 videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King triggered the deepest examination of police racism and brutality in US history – in Los Angeles and other cities across the country.

The list of reforms would grow for years: cultural sensitivity training, community policing, overhauls of officer recruitment and training, new videotaping protections, and citizen oversight boards.

"There have been major strides in improving police departments across the country in the past 30 years," says sociologist Ronald Weitzer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "You'll still find pockets [of corruption] – New Orleans is still quite problematic – but there's clearly progress."

One big challenge is that old perceptions – held by both the public and the police – are slow to die, say Mr. Weitzer and others. And those perceptions, shaped by decades of seething relations between African-American communities and local police departments, are refreshed each time police excesses or missteps leap onto the front pages.

To be sure, the steady drip, drip, drip of episodes disturbing to many Americans, and especially to the black community, keeps trickling out. There was the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida last year; local police declined to charge the shooter of the unarmed black teenager. There was the 2011 case of military veteran Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a black senior citizen, killed by police in his White Plains, N.Y., apartment after the officers' response to a medical alert escalated into a confrontation. And there was the 2009 death of Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif., killed by a transit police officer on the train platform. In each case the pattern repeats itself: shock, outrage, demonstrations, calls for real change.

The bottom line is that Americans, and especially African-Americans living in poor neighborhoods, don't want to be "doubly victimized – victimized by crime and [also by] the response to crime," says Wesley Skogan, a political scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and author of "Community Policing: Can It Work?"

Among the most visible changes in policing is the racial composition of police departments themselves, which today are closer reflections of the communities they protect. The LAPD, which polices one of the most ethnically and racially diverse cities on the globe, is 59 percent nonwhite.

Nationally, 10 to 11 percent of police officers are black, compared with 13.4 percent of the population, says Ron Hampton, executive director of Blacks in Law Enforcement of America.

It's not necessarily the case, however, that a more diverse police force changes the public perception of a department, especially in poor, black communities where residents' views about police are generally the most critical and distrustful, say criminologists and other researchers.

When people in lower-class black communities in majority-black Washington, D.C., were asked whether a police officer's race makes a difference in how that officer treats people, the survey results were mixed. One-third said black officers actually treat blacks more harshly, one-third said they're more sensitive to black people, and another saw them simply as "blue cops," who define themselves by the color of their uniforms, not their skin, according to researchers Weitzer and Steven Tuch.

There is some evidence that black officers tend to be more understanding of African-American neighborhoods, but "most research shows that there's little to no difference on the ground in terms of police behavior, whether those officers are Hispanic, white, black, or Asian," Weitzer says.

Such findings seem to indicate that strains between the police and the community, while often having a racial overlay, are not solely about race. True, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York are racially mixed cities where historically white police departments have at times wrestled openly with black communities.

But such tensions also persist in large cities with black power structures, including Washington, New Orleans, and Atlanta. History, geography, neighborhood crime rates, police leadership, and local politics all affect how the public views its police force – and how police officers view the public.

Still, "we do know from various studies of cities that [in] those cities that have African-American mayors, police shoot fewer people and fewer people shoot police," Mr. Skogan says.

"Cities with African-American mayors also tend to have adopted community policing early and are more likely to have police oversight mechanisms in place. Those things go along with the rise of visible African-American power, all of which can make a big policy difference."

Worries in Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, the Dorner case appears to have laid bare a rising apprehension among some black residents that the police department is backsliding on gains it had made – in transparency, professional conduct, and community relations – since the Rodney King beating.

Chief Charlie Beck moved almost immediately to address concerns, evidently mindful that the case is breeding resentment against the LAPD. Even before the hunt for Dorner reached its unhappy outcome, Beck told the public that the department would review the ex-cop's allegations that he had been fired unfairly in retaliation for reporting abuse by a colleague.

"We are only as good as the public thinks we are," he said at a Feb. 19 press conference. "Confidence in law enforcement is our stock in trade."

"Black folk believe the allegations of racism and discrimination described in Dorner's manifesto; we believe that [the] LAPD fired him for crossing the blue line and reporting police abuse by his training officer; we believe the training officer kicked and hit the suspect as described by Dorner," says Nana Gyamfi, an attorney, professor, and human rights activist in Los Angeles.

"While many do not condone Dorner's killing spree, we understand how he found himself in the position in which he felt he had run out of 'legal' ways to bring racists to justice and restore his name."

Beck will have his work cut out for him to demonstrate that the review of Dorner's allegations is full and fair. Several black community activists have noted that they are leery of his ability to deliver on that because he is a lifetime veteran of the LAPD.

"[Former LAPD Chief William] Bratton was from outside the department, which made it easier for him to institute the kinds of discipline that were needed," says local activist Najee Ali, president of Project Islamic H.O.P.E., which advocates interfaith understanding. "Beck has friends and cronies going back to their days at the police academy. He's not going to shake things up like they need to be."

Speaking broadly of the "culture of policing," and not the LAPD specifically, Mr. Hampton of Blacks in Law Enforcement of America says: "All the changes that are instituted are superficial – changing procedures and rearranging personnel and reconfiguring precincts.

"But what doesn't change is how individual human beings perceive and think about one another. Police chiefs can't or won't admit this out loud, but it is lurking below the surface."

He says the Dorner manifesto could have described situations in dozens of police departments across the country – a view shared by retired LAPD Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey, an African-American. She doesn't agree with what Dorner did, but she says she understands his frustration.

"I am surprised it took this long for someone to do what Dorner did," she says. "The department will grind you down and have you believe there is no life after the LAPD, so once they fired him, he felt like he had no other recourse. If Beck doesn't change the way police are treated at their board of rights hearings, it will happen again."

Where tensions have eased

A whole body of academic research has found that blacks on the whole have much more negative views of police than do whites. But there's also reason to think that that perception can change in the black community, especially with improved economic circumstances.

A study of three neighborhoods in Washington – one poor and black, one middle-class black, and one affluent and majority white – found that residents of the middle-class black neighborhood held the highest perceptions of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia. One older black woman even said she had a "beautiful relationship" with the force, according to the study outlined in Weitzer's 2006 book, "Race and Policing in America: Conflict and Reform."

Moreover, police officers themselves may behave differently in different parts of a city, reserving their toughest demeanor for high-crime neighborhoods. When middle-class black youths traveled to poorer black parts of Washington, D.C., for example, they reported having more negative encounters with police officers than they did in their own neighborhoods.

Police departments that have made strides in building successful community ties, say Hampton and others, include Urbana and Champaign, Ill., and Cincinnati. The Dallas Police Department under former Chief David Kunkle did an outstanding job addressing community concerns and problematic police officers, says Malik Aziz, national chairman of the National Black Police Association, which was created in part to improve relations between police departments and minority communities.

Strides in Atlanta

In Atlanta, the birthplace of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., the business community has for generations applied pressure on political leaders to ease racially charged social unrest.

Still, the city has on occasion grappled with incidents that resulted in what one member of the Atlanta Police Department calls a "total loss of trust" between the police department and the public.

In 2006, for example, a gung-ho vice unit raided a house occupied by elderly Kathryn Johnston, who, apparently thinking her home was being burgled, opened fire with a rusty revolver.

Police instantly shot her to death, raising howls from civil rights activists and causing the US attorney's office to investigate a "culture of misconduct" in the department, including making false statements to speed up the search warrant process. Four officers were sentenced to prison, chiefly for trying to cover up how they came to enter the wrong premises.

Atlanta Police Chief George Turner in 2011 disbanded the so-called Red Dog unit, created in the 1980s to battle high rates of violent crime and homicide. The unit was no longer needed, given that the city's 36 high-crime housing projects no longer exist, Turner said in a recent phone interview, at the same time suggesting that its tactics had become a public-relations liability.

"Don't get me wrong: When we need to be tough on crime, we do that," he says. "But there is a different way to do that as opposed to just putting people in jail. And we do it by giving communities a voice in how we do policing – a big part of the battle."

In place of the Red Dog unit is what criminologists call "cops on the dot" policing – a focus of attention and manpower on pinprick areas of high crime, and even on particular individuals in those areas who cause trouble and raise complaints from local residents.

The Atlanta police, moreover, opted not to follow New York in adopting a "stop and frisk" policy in high-crime areas – a controversial tactic that yields numerous low-level arrests but that the New York Police Department credits with bringing down the city's crime rate.

Still, the Atlanta Police Department has room for improvement in its dealings with the city's poor black enclaves, says Paul Bartels, chairman of the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, which provides independent but nonbinding oversight of the police department.

"The vast majority of complaints [about police misconduct] are from poor, inner-city minority communities, and I think if we see those kinds of instances and conduct happening in [the richer, predominately white enclaves of] Buckhead or Virginia Highlands, those practices would stop right away," he says.

"There's no doubt that sometimes there are lingering effects of racism [in the force], but in many of our cases the complaints involve police officers who are black along with the complaining witness, which means there are other dynamics along with racism."

Turner, for his part, has fired more officers than any other police chief in Atlanta's history and usually doles out harsher punishment than the Citizen Review Board recommends in cases of brutality or excessive force.

In defense of the LAPD

In some ways, Los Angeles is an ideal laboratory to test strategies for improving police ties to the public, especially to minority communities.

Its police department has had a negative reputation to overcome; its populace is incredibly diverse, intensifying the challenge of community-sensitive policing; and it is too spread out to allow for officers to patrol primarily on foot.

Bucking the recent voices of defiance concerning the LAPD, Mr. Aziz of the National Black Police Association describes it as "one of the most progressive police departments in the United States." He adds: "I would believe that there are a few departments that come to mind in regards to corruption before Los Angeles. The most promising practices against police abuse and corruption are rooted in community-based policing."

Under Bratton, who served as LAPD chief from 2002 to 2009, the police held frequent community forums in neutral locales such as the First AME Church, recalls Lance Triggs of Operation HOPE, which formed in 1994 in the wake of the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King case.

"People here were encouraged by these city-hall-style forums," he says, "because there was real back and forth with real policemen and top brass at the same time."

To Aziz, the remaining big hurdle to creating fully professional police forces – and the end of the vestiges of the "blue code of silence" – is a lack of accountability at the national or state level.

"We must have a national standard. This is no easy task to develop, but we have great minds connected to the field of policing. It is no longer enough to leave right and wrong up to individual departments," Aziz says.

Such standards, he adds, must include competent civilian review boards and metrics for community engagement.

He recommends that national police organizations form a commission to craft policies and procedures for police departments to follow – and that associations representing minority officers be at the table.

"The US Congress," he suggests "may be needed for some accountability actions."

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