Christopher Dorner

The Phantom of Christopher Dorner Haunts Southern California

Allegedly murderous ex-cop perhaps not the best person to represent anger over police abuse

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Hope he painted that on his car, too.
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Is he alive? Is he dead? Is he that large black man in the parking lot of a home improvement store? (No) Is this a bad time to be a large, dark-skinned man in Southern California? (Possibly)

The mystery of Christopher Dorner continues to spool out in Southern California as the man sought for the murders of three people as part of an apparent crusade against the Los Angeles Police Department members he holds responsible for his termination continues to elude capture. Assuming he's still alive to be captured. Assuming he's still in Southern California.

As we noted last week when the manhunt first began, Dorner left behind an apparent lengthy manifesto blaming his termination as a police officer on a racist, corrupt LAPD that retaliated against him for reporting a colleague for allegedly kicking a suspect in the chest and head. As the Los Angeles Times diplomatically observed, the accusations have had some "resonance" among members of the public as well as some employees within the LAPD. Twitter hashtags like #GoDornerGo and #WeStandWithDorner have popped up, and a Facebook page titled "We Are All Chris Dorner" has about 2,300 likes. That's actually not a lot.

In an extremely rare move (California police disciplinary records are about as hard to get access to as the White House's drone regulations), LAPD Charlie Beck has reopened the case that ultimately got Dorner sacked and let the media take a look. The Times reviewed the records:

For a Los Angeles Police Department disciplinary panel, the evidence was persuasive: Rookie officer Christopher Jordan Dorner lied when he accused his training officer of kicking a mentally ill man during an arrest.

But when a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge examined the case a year later in 2010 as part of an appeal filed by Dorner, he seemed less convinced.

Judge David P. Yaffe said he was "uncertain whether the training officer kicked the suspect or not" but nevertheless upheld the department's decision to fire Dorner, according to court records reviewed by The Times. …

LAPD records show that Dorner's disciplinary panel heard from several witnesses who testified that they did not see the training officer kick the man. The panel found that the man did not have injuries consistent with having been kicked, nor was there evidence of having been kicked on his clothes. A key witness in Dorner's defense was the man's father, who testified that his son told him he had been kicked by police. The panel concluded that the father's testimony "lacked credibility," finding that his son was too mentally ill to give a reliable account.

It's interesting that while the judge had doubts about whether Dorner lied he still upheld the decision to fire him. I would be curious to see if judges made similar deferences to the LAPD when officers are appealing terminations for actually hurting citizens as opposed to filing complaints about fellow officers. But again, California law gives police officers secrecy and special protections. We don't have decent context to evaluate the judge's decision. Whatever disciplinary process may follow for the officers who recklessly shot two newspaper delivery women will likely not get the kind of public airing Beck has given Dorner's case.

Ultimately, the knowledge that California law actually conceals these cases from the public is undoubtedly feeding any pro-Dorner support, or at least a certain level of empathy. In November, Los Angeles deputies (not police) shot an unarmed man five times in the back, killing him. Deputies say he was reaching for a weapon. Witnesses say otherwise. Riots in Anaheim (again not the LAPD) last year followed a similar police shooting. Prosecutors are declining to charge the officer who fired the shots. So Dorner's "crusade" strikes a chord with those who see a Southern California police force largely unrestrained and unresponsive.

But Dorner makes a terrible choice for a folk hero. His first alleged victims were the daughter of the man who defended him in the disciplinary process and her fiancé. Dorner's manifesto blames Randal Quan for not defending him and accuses him of conspiring with the rest of the police to get rid of him. But in the report of the disciplinary panel, Quan said that the department was making a scapegoat of Dorner in his attempt to keep the man from getting fired.

It's possible that the department retaliated against Dorner for blowing the whistle on an abusive training officer. It's also possible that Dorner himself was retaliating because of the performance evaluations he had been given by that very same officer:

On several evaluation forms, [Teresa] Evans rated Dorner as "satisfactory" but indicated he needed to improve in certain areas. At one point, she told him she would give him an "unsatisfactory" rating unless he improved. "He was upset," she said.

Records show that Dorner reported the kicks a day after he received an evaluation in which Evans noted that he needed to show improvement in three categories, including the time it took to write reports, officer safety and use of common sense and good judgment.

Rallying behind Dorner is going to just harden the "us vs. them" mentality of law enforcement agencies in Southern California. I don't know whether Dorner deserved to be terminated, but I do know that an officer on a murderous rampage over losing his job is perhaps not the most logical rallying point to fight against police abuse.