The electronic media didn’t cover itself in glory during the Christopher Dorner saga. Driven to fill air time with a story about which few actual facts were available, news stations sometimes resorted to wild speculation, erroneous reports, and moral obtuseness about the manhunt surrounding the ex–Los Angeles police officer and his killing spree. Of these, the first two are perhaps forgivable or at least understandable, given the nature of the business. The Dorner story delivered viewers. Failure to cover it, despite the lack of anything new to report, would have sent those viewers elsewhere. We’ve grown accustomed to news programs devoid of news. We’ve even come to expect some moral obtuseness in the media, where criminal behavior is so often rationalized as the byproduct of a deprived upbringing or whatnot.
But on February 13, only one day after Dorner’s murder spree came to a fiery end, viewers saw what may be a new low in a milieu in which lows are routine. Appearing to discuss the Dorner case on CNN was, among others, Marc Lamont Hill, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “As far as Dorner himself goes,” said Hill, “he’s been like a real life superhero to many people.” Perhaps realizing he had gone too far, Hill added: “What he did was awful, killing innocent people is bad.”
But then Hill doubled down, offering what amounts to a justification for Dorner’s crimes. “But when you read [Dorner’s] manifesto,” he said, “when you read the message that he left, he wasn’t entirely crazy. He had a plan and mission here and many people aren’t rooting for him to kill innocent people. They’re rooting for somebody who was wronged, to get a kind of revenge against the system. It is almost like watching ‘Django Unchained’ in real life. It’s kind of exciting.”
Where does one begin to respond? First and most important, Dorner’s problem was not that he was “entirely crazy”; he was evil, a term rarely heard in the discussion of his crimes. Given Hill’s academic position, it is most likely a term absent not only from his own vocabulary, but also from that of virtually everyone with whom he interacts regularly.
Second, how is it that Dorner’s online manifesto is more indicative of his mental state than the heinous acts he is believed to have committed? That he could describe his grievance with the Los Angeles Police Department with some coherence shouldn’t obscure the fact that in this now infamous document, Dorner threatened the lives of police officers and their families—and then went out and made good on the threat, murdering the daughter of the retired police captain against whom he held a grudge, as well as her fiancé. Yes, Dorner had “a plan and mission”—the first act of which was to murder two people having nothing to do with his grievances.
Meanwhile, LAPD chief Charlie Beck has announced that he will reopen the complaint investigation that led to Dorner’s dismissal from the department in 2009. “It is important to me,” said Beck, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, “that we have a department that is seen as valuing fairness.” Beck’s decision has been roundly criticized within the LAPD, as it seems to lend credence to Dorner’s claim that he was fired unjustly. If Beck is confident that Dorner’s case was handled properly, what do he and the LAPD gain from reopening the case? If the results are in accord with the previous conclusion, Dorner’s unhinged supporters will merely accuse the LAPD of conducting another sham investigation and covering up the truth. Far better for Beck to open up the LAPD records relating to Dorner’s termination and let people draw their own conclusions. And remember that both a superior court judge and a panel of the California Court of Appeals upheld Dorner’s termination, so it’s absurd to claim that he was denied due process.
I know nothing about Dorner’s tenure with the LAPD beyond what I’ve read and what I’ve heard from conversations with officers who knew him. But in 30 years with the LAPD, I have come to know how the department’s disciplinary system works. In truth, it’s not always fair. If the department gave Dorner a raw deal, he would hardly be the first. But he would be the first to react to the injustice by committing murder.
The thumb on the scale can be heavy when an officer is ordered to appear before a quasi-judicial panel known as a “board of rights.” The boards are made up of a civilian member and two senior LAPD officers at the rank of captain or higher. When an officer appears before such a board, the chief of police has usually determined that the charges against him warrant his removal from the department. Most of the captains who sit on these boards hope for further advancement in the LAPD, and the chief of police has the power to make those determinations. Absent a compelling defense on the officer’s behalf, few captains are willing to go against the chief and side with the accused in a close case.
Was the case against Dorner close? An examination of the facts strongly suggests that he lied when, in 2007, he accused his training officer of kicking a man during an altercation at a San Pedro hotel. The most compelling evidence came from the testimony of hotel employees who witnessed the incident and did not report seeing Dorner’s partner kick the man being detained. These witnesses had no reason to withhold information from the sergeant investigating the officers’ conduct. Also, the detained man bore no marks or injuries consistent with having been kicked, and he made no allegation that he was kicked when discussing the incident with the officers’ watch commander or with the jail doctor who examined him.
The training officer had no apparent motivation to lie about her role in the altercation, either. Independent witnesses described the detained man’s behavior as combative, and LAPD policy allows kicks under such circumstances, so admitting to having kicked the man wouldn’t constitute an acknowledgment of misconduct. By all accounts the scuffle was brief and unremarkable.
Now let us examine Dorner’s possible motivation for lying. Dorner waited two weeks before coming forward with allegations against his training officer, a delay that weakens his credibility. Add to this the fact that the training officer had written an evaluation in which she said that Dorner needed to improve his officer-safety skills, common sense, and good judgment, and you have a classic case of a failing rookie reaching for a lifeline. Perhaps fearing the consequences of such an evaluation, Dorner apparently reacted as many rookie officers have before: he made an accusation of misconduct against the training officer in the hope of getting assigned to a new partner.
Dorner’s lack of good judgment and self-awareness appeared in more mundane ways. In his manifesto, he claims to have excelled at writing police reports, but the document itself suggests otherwise—it’s rife with spelling or grammatical errors in virtually every paragraph. Even the sentence in which Dorner invites scrutiny of his writing skills contains a spelling error: “Judge my writin/grammar skills for yourself,” he implored.
As the LAPD reexamines why Dorner was fired, perhaps we might also learn why, years earlier, he was retained under circumstances that should have led to his termination. While an academy recruit, Dorner accidentally shot himself in the hand while cleaning one of his guns at home. Local police and the LAPD investigated the shooting and concluded that Dorner had been negligent. A tenured officer would expect a suspension under these circumstances, but academy recruits are at-will employees; it was once unthinkable that a recruit not be fired for displaying such carelessness. Dorner received a two-day suspension without pay but was allowed to complete his training after his injury healed. When Chief Beck announces the results of the Dorner reinvestigation, will he also explain this apparent departure from the LAPD’s earlier standards?
Christopher Dorner was not fired because he was a whistleblower threatening to expose corruption and racism in the LAPD; he was fired because he was dishonest. What a dreadful shame that dishonesty turned out to be the least of his problems.