Hunt for Christopher Dorner becomes major PR problem for L.A. police

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck says he will review alleged cop killer Christopher Dorner's charges of racism. It could be an important step in reversing the LAPD’s history of corruption and abuse.

Reed Saxon/AP
A digital billboard along Santa Monica Boulevard shows a 'wanted' alert for former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner, suspected in a spree of violence as part of a vendetta against law enforcement after being fired by the department.
Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS
Chief of Police Charlie Beck speaks at a news conference regarding shooting suspect Christopher Dorner at LAPD headquarters in Los Angeles.

The hunt for alleged cop killer Christopher Dorner has turned into a major public relations challenge for law enforcement officials, in particular the Los Angeles Police Department, working its way back from a history of corruption and abuse.

Not only have hundreds of well-trained officers equipped with military-style vehicles – including helicopters with thermal imaging devices one pilot says can pick out a rabbit in a snowstorm – been unable to find the man charged with killing three people and wounding two others on a rampage aimed at police officers and their families, but the LAPD also has been forced to reexamine the reasons for Mr. Dorner’s dismissal as a police officer in 2009 – brought about, Dorner charges in the 11-page manifesto he posted on Facebook, by racism in the department. And the LAPD is having to make amends to the two people – a middle-aged Hispanic woman and her mother delivering newspapers – wounded when police riddled their truck with gunfire. (The women’s truck was neither the make nor the color of Dorner’s pickup, which was later found abandoned.)

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The search for Dorner continued Sunday in and around the San Bernardino mountains east of L.A., but police were on edge and alert to the possibility that the alleged killer had left California. Police in Las Vegas (where Dorner owns property) are now traveling in pairs, and motorcycle patrol officers have been ordered into less-vulnerable cruisers.

Given Dorner’s claims about why he was fired, which detail specific episodes with specific senior officers named, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has ordered an official review of the case, which occurred before he took over the department.

"I am aware of the ghosts of the LAPD's past, and one of my biggest concerns is that they will be resurrected by Dorner's allegations of racism within the department," Chief Beck said in a statement Saturday. "Therefore, I feel we need to also publicly address Dorner's allegations regarding his termination of employment."

In his manifesto, Dorner warns that the killing will continue until “the department states the truth about my innocence.”

But Beck says, "I do this not to appease a murderer…. I do it to reassure the public that their police department is transparent and fair in all the things we do."

A special joint task force is being formed to investigate the Dorner case, the Los Angeles Times reports. Participating agencies include the Irvine and Riverside police departments, the FBI, the US Marshals Service, and other law enforcement organizations.

“It is important to acknowledge this history if we are to understand and overcome the disturbing support for Dorner's manifesto from the black community on the Internet and on black radio, and if we are to ever free ourselves from the toxic wake of the LAPD's past,” civil rights attorney Connie Rice writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed column.

But Ms. Rice, who has faced off against the LAPD many times in court, says Dorner “is absolutely wrong” when he states in the manifesto that the department has not changed in the years since officers on patrol were racially segregated and police brutality like the Rodney King episode caused violent riots.

“The LAPD has definitely changed at the top and is currently in the process of changing its old guard culture,” she writes. “We're not done; there are decades still of work to be done to change the institutional culture, but … the good guys are now in charge of LAPD culture; it is a huge change and the right beginning to real police reform.”

While this may be a generally accepted view among experts and most residents of Los Angeles, this past week’s shooting of innocent bystanders reminds many Angelenos of a darker shoot-first-ask-questions-later past.

Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, questions Beck’s initial comments following the mistaken shooting of newspaper carriers Margie Carranza and her 71-year-old mother, Emma Hernandez, both of whom are recovering from their injuries.

Also appearing in the Los Angeles Times as a guest columnist, Mr. Villagra writes: “When Beck says that it's not difficult to imagine how officers who were already on edge could make the mistake these officers did, even if he is not commenting directly on this shooting, he risks suggesting that he has prejudged their behavior as excusable, a suggestion that is particularly troubling for those who live in communities where officer-involved shootings happen regularly.”

The LAPD is investigating the incident, reported to have involved dozens of shots fired by at least seven officers. Meanwhile, Beck has met with the two women in their home to apologize and to promise that their bullet-riddled truck will be replaced with a new one.

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