Four days after the violent death of Christopher Dorner, a small crowd gathered at police headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Dorner, a former police officer suspected of killing four people, perished last Tuesday from a single, likely self-inflicted gunshot wound, while the mountain cabin in which he was barricaded burned to the ground. But rather than support the LAPD for having cornered him, the protesters came to condemn the way the manhunt was conducted – and even to express support for Dorner himself.
Though none remotely condoned his actions, those who congregated on Saturday said they sympathised with the words of the “manifesto” that Dorner posted online shortly before he began his shooting spree. In that lengthy rant, the 33-year-old accused the LAPD of corruption and racism, and insisted he had been wrongly fired in 2009, after he made a complaint against his female training officer, whom he accused of having kicked a mentally ill man during an arrest.
According to Dorner’s screed, in his time with the LAPD, he heard the “N-word” casually exchanged by his fellow officers, and watched police academy recruits taunt a Jewish colleague by singing Hitler Youth ditties. His murderous rampage, he claimed, was “a necessary evil that I do not enjoy but must… complete for substantial change to occur within the LAPD.”
The alleged killer’s accusations have drawn more than 27,000 supporters to a Facebook page entitled, “We Stand With Christopher Dorner”. At least three current and former black LAPD officers have come forward to say they recognise his grievances. One of them, 48-year-old Brian Bentley, told The Independent, “It was almost as if I’d written [Dorner’s] manifesto myself. I experienced what he experienced.”
These charges threaten to unpick the LAPD’s delicate and newfound reputation for racial probity. As he announced the re-opening of the disciplinary case that led to Dorner’s firing, the city’s police Chief Charlie Beck said: “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.”
One of those ghosts is that of William H Parker, LA’s Chief of Police throughout the 1950s, who ran a department that was often faulted for its brutality and racial antagonism. It was towards the end of Parker’s tenure that 34 people died in the 1965 Watts Riots, which were incited by a white policeman pulling over a black driver on suspicion of driving under the influence.
The same tensions flared again more than 20 years later, when an amateur filmmaker with a Sony Handycam shot a grainy, nine-minute video of LAPD officers beating the black motorist Rodney King. In 1992 an all-white jury set free the four officers involved, sparking days of unrest that left 55 people dead. The then-Chief Daryl Gates was seen as responsible for the LAPD’s brutality; he resigned shortly after the riots. Among the laws created later was a two-term limit for LAPD Chiefs, so no one could rule the department for longer than 10 years, as both Parker and Gates had done.
Yet despite the appointment of its first African-American Chief, Willie Williams, the LAPD’s image failed to significantly improve in the 1990s. At the 1995 trial of OJ Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman, the defence used the proven racism of LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman to suggest he had prejudiced the case. Later that decade, the Rampart corruption scandal saw several officers from the department’s elite anti-gang unit convicted of a range of crimes including shootings, drug dealing and bank robbery. Three of those rogue cops were accused of involvement in the 1997 murder of the rapper Notorious B.I.G.
The scandals eventually led to reform. Last year the LAPD released figures suggesting just 37 per cent of its staff are white, compared to 59 per cent in 1992. Following the Rampart scandal, anti-gang and narcotics officers were required to disclose their finances. The department also vacated its old home, the Parker Centre – named after William H Parker – and moved to the sleek new Police Administration Building beside City Hall in October 2009.
Connie Rice is a civil rights lawyer who brought a series of lawsuits against the LAPD in the 1990s, when, she says, “They were still at war with the black community. The LAPD was a militaristic and cruel force: abusive, hostile, openly racist and uninterested in change.”
When Bill Bratton was made Chief of Police in 2002, however, he invited Rice to be one of his advisers – a role she continues to perform for his successor. “Chief Bratton was the first catalytic transformer of the LAPD, and Chief Beck picked up the baton,” said Ms Rice, who refuted Dorner’s claim that, “The department has not changed since the Rampart and Rodney King days”.
“They’ve made enormous changes,” said Ms Rice. “You no longer have a command staff that openly embraces racist jokes and epithets, or racial hostility to minority officers. You have a police force that is no longer majority white male. The leadership requires its officers to view the poor minority community as human and deserving of protection. That’s a sea change. But it’s also true that we have a long way to go. We need more women police officers, and the LAPD is not an interracial nirvana. But the culture no longer flagrantly celebrates racism.”
Brian Bentley was a police officer from 1989 to 1999; he served throughout the riots of 1992, and was assigned to guard OJ Simpson’s home in Brentwood during the star’s trial. The day he joined the force, he says, his training officer told him, “I’m going to be honest with you: I think all the blacks on the LAPD are only here because of affirmative action. My job is not to train you; it’s to get you fired.” When Mr Bentley complained to his superiors, his captain refused to act and asked him to leave his office.
Though he has no sympathy for Dorner, Mr Bentley says he was surprised something like the alleged cop-killer’s case did not occur before. He knows a number of other officers who, he claims, drew up hit-lists of LAPD officials whom they believed had wronged them. “Ultimately those officers ended up killing themselves,” he says. “There’s three suicides I know of in recent years: two black officers and one white female. They were so angry that they couldn’t take it.” A 2008 study found that LAPD officers were more likely to die at their own hands than to be killed by criminals.
Both Mr Bentley and Ms Rice believe the Board of Rights system, under which cases such as Dorner’s are reviewed by senior officers, ought to be replaced by outside oversight. “I don’t think cops can be expected to investigate their friends,” said Ms Rice.
Mr Bentley’s own experience gives some sense of the treatment afforded to whistle-blowers. He was fired for writing One Time: The Story of a South Los Angeles Police Officer, a memoir of his experiences, and given a misconduct charge for every incident of racism that he described in the book but had failed to report to his superiors. He left the LAPD with more misconduct charges than any other officer in its history.