LAPD review of Christopher Dorner firing: why black community wants more

Even 20 years after the Rodney King riots, mistrust simmers between the LAPD and the black community. Some leaders say federal authorities need to investigate Christopher Dorner's claims.

Patrick Fallon/Reuters
LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck looks on during a news conference at the LAPD headquarters in Los Angeles Sunday. A record $1 million reward was posted Sunday for information leading to the capture of fugitive former Los Angeles cop Christopher Dorner, suspected of targeting police officers and their families in three killings committed in retaliation for his 2008 firing.

Los Angeles's African-American community is casting a skeptical eye on police chief Charlie Beck's decision Saturday to reopen the investigation into the 2008 firing of alleged cop killer Christopher Dorner. Twenty years after the Rodney King riots deep distrust remains, with some community leaders saying the Los Angeles Police Department cannot be trusted to investigate itself – and that perhaps even the US Justice Department should be called in. 

Mr. Dorner's firing from the LAPD is at the center of the online manifesto that outlines his motivations for revenge. Police say Dorner has already killed three people and has threatened several police officers and families by name. The massive manhunt for him began Thursday.

In his manifesto, Dorner calls his firing "unjust," and suggests that he was fired partly because he reported that a fellow cop kicked a suspect. The allegations of police abuse and prejudice within the LAPD strike a chord within the broader black community. Moreover, they come at a time when some black leaders worry that the LAPD is backsliding after making significant gains toward more inclusivenessxxxxx under the previous chief.

“We don’t agree with Dorner’s tactics, but many of us sympathize with his allegations,” says Najee Ali, a black activist and executive director of Project Islamic H.O.P.E. in Los Angeles. “But we don’t think the LAPD can investigate itself and come up with a conclusion that will appease the black community. We think the US Justice Department needs to do it.”

Others have echoed the call for an outside investigation.

“Having the LAPD conduct an internal investigation is like asking Bonnie to investigate Clyde,” says Jasmyne Cannick, an African-American community activist, political commentator, and nationally syndicated columnist. “Not only does this specific incident need to be investigated, but the very process that the LAPD uses needs to be carefully looked at.”

She suggests tapping a panel of retired judges, respected journalists, or local clergy for which the black community has high regard.

Chief Beck appears to recognize the distrust that Dorner's allegations have rekindled with in the black community.    

“It is important to me that we have a department that is seen as valuing fairness,” Beck said at a press conference Saturday.

He also solicited popular local black broadcast reporter Pat Harvey for an interview, in which he said he did not want to appease Dorner but rather to provide transparency to communities of color. Beck said during the interview that he didn’t want the LAPD to slide backward on the gains it has has made since the department became the international poster child for police abuse and corruption in the 1990s in cases ranging from the beating of Rodney King to the trial of O.J. Simpson.

Since then, a succession of police chiefs here has made reform a high priority. The depth of the problem was such that the federal government even stepped in to provide oversight for eight years. These steps helped clean up the department, most agree. The changing demographics of the force – 37 percent white now compared with 59 percent in 1992 – are one sign of how far the LAPD has come.

The Dorner case provides a test of whether those reforms have taken hold, some observers say. Many of the most significant gains were made under former chief William Bratton, who was hired from outside the department. Now that Beck – a lifetime veteran of the LAPD – is chief, he is loath to continue the same level of discipline that Bratton instituted, given that so many in the department are longtime colleagues, critics say.

“This [Dorner manifesto] posed a serious frontal challenge to the LAPD's decade-long efforts to transform the department into a kindler, gentler, community-oriented department,” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of several books on the black experience in America and president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. “The fact that that image of the LAPD is still burned into the memory and belief of many, gave Dorner's allegations some resonance."

Beck’s reopening the case "was, in part, a sound police-investigation move, and in part a move to protect the image of the LAPD as a department that doesn't do business in the old insular, oppressive ways,” Mr. Hutchinson says.

Lt. Andy Neiman, a spokesman for the LAPD, says the investigation will be conducted by the Office of Inspector General, which is the civilian head of the Los Angeles Police Department and assists the Police Commission in providing independent civilian oversight. He says Beck was not police chief at the time of Dorner’s firing, but was chief of the south bureau where Dorner was assigned.

He says Beck did not bow to public pressure in agreeing to reopen the investigation Saturday, but rather read accounts showing the public was very concerned and wants to “make sure we got it right, and if not, to make it right.”

But some national observers agree that if any progress has been made, it needs to be verified and validated by an independent body – and the further away it is from Los Angeles, the better.

“If there is one ounce of truth in Dorner’s manifesto, it needs to be verified from outside,” says Damon Jones, New York representative for Blacks in Law Enforcement of America. “Cases like this are happening all over the country where [an officer of color] gets punished for doing the right thing. The police cannot investigate themselves. [US Attorney General] Eric Holder needs to step up and investigate these police departments.”

Still, other national analysts applaud Beck for at least providing an opening for further scrutiny .

Says Mary Powers, coordinator of Citizens Alert, Chicago’s 46-year-old police watchdog group: “For the LAPD to re-look at this case may not be the scrutiny that Los Angeles’s black community really wants and needs, but at least it’s a start.”

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