What Led Chris Dorner to Go Off the Edge: Workplace Abuse, Racism, and Unfair Firing
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This article first appeared at Not Safe for Work Corporation.
In the days after his lethal rebellion and violent death, Christopher Dorner has become many things to many different people: a one-man Alamo hero who died fighting the police state; a crazy black man who started murdering cops because that’s what crazy black men do; or a symbol of government oppression and the militarization of America’s police forces. For some conspiracy theorists, Dorner even became a Manchurian candidate in an elaborate Big Brother plot to sow chaos and fear, so that Government Marxists could fill America’s skies with armed drones, assassinating gun-owners and freedom-lovers at will.
But all this focus on Dorner’s spectacular ending has obscured the real story about what sent Chris Dorner over the edge: workplace abuse, racial discrimination, and a legitimate claim of wrongful termination. In a nation where workers have fewer legal protections than workers in many developing nations, low-level employees like Dorner have few rights, little power and almost nowhere to turn. Ever since the Reagan Revolution of the 80s, popular culture has neglected labor problems in favor of violent epic fantasies, even though more and more Americans suffered worsening labor conditions in their own lives, privately and alone. Wrongful termination and workplace discrimination are devastating problems for each and every victim, yet collectively we’re infinitely more worried about police state fascism and getting assassinated by armed drones, thanks to media and pop culture conditioning. Labor and workplace problems are considered boring, even embarrassing.
Ever since “going postal” massacres first appeared in the public sector, in US post offices in the mid-1980s, they have tended to follow a familiar script. The murderer “snaps” for no apparent reason; official culture blames it all on Hollywood or guns, never explaining why these workplace massacres only appeared in the mid-late 80s; and later, as it turns out, there were a lot of reasons for the gunman to snap. If you profile the workplace that created the murderer, rather profiling the murderer’s psychology, you will often find a pattern of shocking workplace abuse and of top-down mistreatment of employees, culminating in the “going postal” rampage. The consequent killing spree will target supervisors, fellow employees, and anyone associated with the institution that the abused employee blames for having crushed him (or her).
The LAPD is a textbook example of one of the most abusive public sector employers in America today — and this context, along with the details of Dorner’s firing and his appeals, are the real missing pieces in the puzzle.
Noted civil rights attorney Dan Stormer, who has sued the LAPD on numerous occasions over wrongful terminations, discrimination and civil rights abuses, tells me, “Dorner’s case looks like a garden variety example of these types of cases.”
Dorner’s problems began with race, and escalated to his firing over his allegations against a fellow police officer of kicking a suspect in the face. “They don’t like it when you report abuse,” Stormer says. “If you complain, they punish you.”
Just over a decade ago, 109 serving and former LAPD officers filed a class action lawsuit accusing the police department of retaliating against whistleblowers and employees who dared to report police abuse.
An article in the LA Times headlined “More Than 60 Officers Join Lawsuit Against LAPD”, dated October 10, 2000, begins:
More than 60 current and former officers are joining a class-action lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department that alleges retaliation against whistle-blowers, bringing the total number of plaintiffs to more than 100, an attorney said Monday.
The original lawsuit, filed Aug. 24 in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of 41 former and current employees, most of them officers, claims that the LAPD has a culture that enforces a "code of silence" that leads to a pattern of discrimination, harassment and retaliation against those who report misconduct by other officers.
One of the plaintiffs, a narcotics detective named Shelby Braverman, worked in the same Harbor Division that Dorner served in. Braverman reported on one of his supervisors stealing heroin from evidence — and found himself the subject of a reopened criminal case. The result was that Braverman was fired and jailed for 30 days, ending his 20-year career.
Another plaintiff, Lita Abella, was driven out of the force and psychologically damaged by her experience:
Lita Abella, a former lieutenant in the Central Division, said she resigned in February. She said she was retaliated against for what she characterized as her "activist" role as a union delegate and a vice president of the Los Angeles Women Police Officers Assn. who over the years had reported or investigated numerous incidents of alleged misconduct.
She said the department eventually launched a "major personnel complaint" against her that had been manufactured to get her fired. She quit, she said, rather than fight the charges because the situation was making her physically ill.
The LAPD’s culture of workplace abuse, retaliation, and wrongful termination is so pervasive and out of control that according to a recentInspector General’s report,
Los Angeles police brought an average of three times more lawsuits a year per officer than officers in Chicago and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
For so many LAPD officers and employees, their problems only worsen when officers report police misconduct — which is how Dorner’s problems started. In 2011, two years after Dorner was fired for allegedly lying when he filed a police misconduct report against a fellow officer, the LA Times wrote about the LAPD’s Inspector General’s investigation into the very same problem:
The department also has come under fire for failing to thoroughly investigate complaints of workplace problems. In a 2010 audit of LAPD investigations into employee allegations of retaliation, [Inspector General Nicole] Bershon's office found that investigators routinely neglected to interview people accused of misconduct, or even name them in the investigations.
Dorner reported his training supervisor, Teresa Evans, for kicking a suspect three times in 2007. In 2009, the LAPD chose, as it has so many times, to side with the accused supervisor and against the whistleblower: Dorner's whistleblowing was turned against him, he was charged with making false statements against a fellow officer, fired, and as his appeals failed to reverse the charges against him, Dorner's life spun out of control.
Court documents filed by Dorner’s attorneys contested his firing and the ruling by the Board of Rights that Dorner had falsified his report of police misconduct by a fellow officer.
These court documents, including a recently-released appellate brief filed by Dorner’s attorney in early 2011, paint what appears to be a very familiar story of LAPD workplace abuse and retaliation.
Chris Dorner grew up in southern California, and graduated in 2001 from Southern Utah University— Harry Reid’s alma mater — with a BA in Political Science and a minor in Psychology.
In 2002, at the start of Bush’s Global War on Terror, Dorner joined the Navy.
One of the first times Chris Dorner’s name appears in the press is late in 2002, in an article in small-town Oklahoma’s Enid News & Eagle:
An Enid church is a little richer today thanks to the integrity of Lt. Andrew Baugher, a Marine student at Vance, and Ensign Chris Dorner, a Navy student pilot.
The two were driving into Enid Sunday afternoon when they spotted a bank bag in the middle of the road.
After turning around, they picked up the bag and found it contained nearly $8,000. They promptly took the bag to the Enid Police Department.
The money belongs to Enid Korean Church of Grace, 724 W. Randolph, and the bag contained $7,792 in cash and checks.
“The military stresses integrity,” Dorner said. “There was a couple of thousand dollars, and if people are willing to give that to a church, it must be pretty important to them.”
He said it was “a little scary” having that much money in front of him.
Dorner said his mother taught him honesty and integrity. “I didn’t work for it, so it’s not mine. And it was for the church,” he said. “It’s not so much the integrity, but it was someone else’s money. I would hope someone would do that for me.”
Local Oklahoma City tv news recently ran stories on Dorner's good samaritan "heroism" in Enid, but this was largely ignored by the national media — it confused and upset their facile narrative, apparently.
Most of Dorner’s naval career was spent on naval bases in San Diego and near Las Vegas. He also served in Bahrain, and earned scores of medals and commendations.
In 2005, Dorner joined the LAPD and was in training when the Navy called him up for a year of active duty overseas in the Persian Gulf. A former Navy friend of Dorner’s, Long Beach police Sgt. Clint Grimes, described a very different Dorner from the crazed mass-murderer who terrorized Southern California earlier this month:
"I never knew him not to be smiling," [Sgt. Grimes] said.
Grimes said Dorner is very bright. Dorner's unit used high-tech sonar equipment to find small boats that could be a threat to naval vessels in port.
"They're not looking for a stupid guy, here," Grimes said.
In the same article, Dorner’s closest college friend, an Oregon attorney named James Usura, describes Dorner as “well-spoken, educated, rational. I didn't think he was moody or showed anything that would indicate he had mental health issues." Then, echoing a common theme to nearly all “going postal” workplace massacres — that it’s impossible to profile potential rampage murderers — Usura told reporters,
"People are looking for predictors, but I just never recognized anything that would indicate he was unstable in any fashion. He seemed normal, and I know that's not a great descriptor, but that was who he was to me."
Indeed Dorner’s ordinariness is what stands out. He was an ordinary middle-class African-American California jock, facing “ordinary” racism and racial discrimination, in a country that officially claims to be post-racial:
"Mr. Dorner was from Southern California and I was from Alaska, so being at SUU, which is set in a rural, predominantly white Mormon town, one of the things that connected us was our shock to the social demographics of the place," Usera said. "It was different to what we were used to and so we could relate to each other."
Usera recalled Dorner complaining about instances of discrimination, but nothing that alarmed Usera during their college years.
"He is a person who believed that racism is alive and well in the United States, not just in Utah," Usera said, "but while it is something he mentioned on some occasions, I never saw him get irate about it."
During his academy training, Dorner reported an incident in which he was in a van with other recruits, and one of them called another recruit “nigger.” Dorner told him not to use that word. Their argument erupted into a fight, and Dorner reported the racist recruit to his supervisor. The result, he later said, was that he was shunned by his colleagues.
In 2006, Dorner graduated from the LA Police Academy and joined the force. But as the American military machine geared up for Bush's coming Bush “Iraq Surge,” Dorner was called up for Naval duty and deployed to the Persian Gulf.
In early summer 2007, Dorner, now a lieutenant in the Naval Reserves, returned to the civilian world and to his job with the LAPD. Dorner asked his superiors to put him through a reintegration training to make up for the time lost, but his repeated requests were ignored.
Instead, Dorner was put out on the field with a supervising officer, a 42-year-old woman named Teresa Evans. According to Dorner, Evans was “angry” and sadistic. His legal filings repeatedly reference an incident in which Evans was arrested by Long Beach police for “domestic violence” in June 2007, resulting in an apparent demotion for Evans. Dorner also reported that Evans “slapped” his hands on at least two occasions, and that in one incident when they detained a woman in her mid-70s, Evans “tore the skin off” the old woman’s forearm, requiring medical treatment. In court documents, LAPD investigators never deny Evans’ arrest for domestic violence, but instead dismiss it as immaterial in their case against Dorner for false testimony.
For her part, Teresa Evans claimed that Dorner was overly emotional, citing an incident in which Dorner supposedly began “weeping” while out on patrol, begging to be put through LAPD reintegration training.
On July 28, 2007, Dorner and Sgt. Evans responded to a reported disturbance at a Doubletree Hotel. The suspect, a paranoid-schizophrenic named Christopher Gettler, refused to comply. Dorner, despite his great size and strength, was unable to subdue Gettler long enough to cuff him. They fell forward into some bushes as Teresa Evans shot him twice with a Taser, and then — according to Dorner — she kicked Gettler three times: first softly on the clavicle, then again more roughly, and a third swift kick to Gettler’s eye.
Gettler’s eye swelled and bled. Teresa Evans claimed that he’d cut himself in the bushes. Ultimately, there were no reliable witnesses to testify that Evans had or hadn’t kicked Gettler, and his father, who was deferential to the police due to numerous incidents involving his son over the years, didn’t bother pressing charges. Gettler gave video testimony backing up Dorner's version of events — that Evans kicked him three times, once in the face below the eye — but Gettler's testimony was ruled inadmissible.
Dorner initially refrained from reporting the kicking. He knew that turning on fellow cops led to getting ostracized or worse. Afterwards, as they drove away together, Dorner claimed that Sgt. Evans told him, “We’re not going to mention the kicks in the report.”
The following day, Dorner checked the report that Teresa Evans had written up, and saw that she left out the kicks. When he worked on writing the report with her, he began to describe the events leading up to her kicks, whereupon Evans put her finger on the “delete” key and deleted three sentences, then took over writing the rest of the report.
A month later, troubled by the kicking incident, Dorner mentioned it to his old Navy mentor and a superior officer, Sgt. Leonard Perez. Perez immediately stopped Dorner and told him that he must, by law, having told Perez about misconduct, report it to a superior officer and file a police misconduct report.
The case against Dorner, in public and in the police Board of Rights, rests largely on the theory that Dorner sought revenge after supposedly getting a bad review from Teresa Evans, and his revenge was falsely reporting her for police misconduct.
However, court filings paint a different sequence of events: For one thing, although Evans’ evaluation did cite “improvement needed” in a few areas, overall she gave him a “satisfactory” review, not “unsatisfactory.” Moreover, while it’s true that Dorner reported the kicking to Sgt. Perez the day after Teresa Evans submitted her evaluation on Dorner, he didn’t see her evaluation until several weeks later, well after he’d reported her for police misconduct. But the most important point Dorner and his attorneys kept trying to get across was that Evans' evaluation was "satisfactory" — her evaluation would not have hurt Dorner's career.
Nevertheless, Dorner’s timing looked suspicious — why did he wait until she filed her evaluation on him before reporting her? More likely, he waited knowing she might retaliate after he filed a police misconduct report on her — that is certainly more plausible than Dorner reporting her as revenge over an evaluation that turned out to be “satisfactory” anyway. However, Dorner’s delay was used against him in the internal investigation report that charged Dorner with making false statements about Sgt Evans’ conduct, leading to his firing.
As a general rule, American workers have very few legal rights and protections in the workplace when compared to workers in other countries. Although the LAPD union is stronger than many public sector unions, Dorner was still in his probationary period. By contrast, Teresa Evans, an LAPD veteran some 15 years older than Dorner, had many friends and allies on the force.
Chris Dorner’s bad luck, if that’s the right way of putting it, was that he went to bat defending the civil rights of a mentally ill suspect whose testimony was ruled inadmissible as evidence; it essentially came down to Evans’ word (and the word of her police colleagues) against Dorner’s (and the few friends he’d made on the force), along with the incomplete testimony of nearby hotel witnesses. What began as whistleblowing turned into a trial on the character of a new recruit, Christopher Dorner, who now had to prove to the heavily-stacked Board of Rights that he hadn’t lied when he reported Evans for misconduct.
Speaking about this process, attorney Stormer told me, “I am 100% certain that the Board of Rights process is unfair.”
Stormer added, however, another giant caveat about Dorner that his adoring fans have been ignoring: “But this does raise another issue — that Dorner could’ve been the type who would’ve snapped as an officer on duty at any time.”
* * * *
In case after case in which the LAPD was successfully sued for wrongful termination, plaintiffs have reported psychological damage that gives some insight into what sent Dorner over the edge.
Officer Melissa Borck won $2.3 million in a harassment suit against the LAPD in 2009, a case in which Borck was a victim of retaliation after she reported misconduct to internal affairs. Borck lost her child, a stillborn, due to the stress. It took her 10 years to finally win her lawsuit.
In 2011, three LAPD detectives won a $2.5 million gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against their supervisors.
In late 2010, a former LAPD veteran, Richard Romney, won a $4 million wrongful termination and retaliation lawsuit against his former employers. According to the LA Times,
A Los Angeles County jury Tuesday awarded a former Los Angeles police officer nearly $4 million in his case against the LAPD, concluding the officer was fired in retaliation for testifying against the department in a labor dispute.
The verdict, which stems from one of several similar lawsuits that thousands of disgruntled LAPD officers are pursuing against the department, underscores a long-running, internal rift between LAPD cops and the department's command staff that could ultimately cost the city millions of dollars more.
What these cases show is that workplace abuse and retaliation is rampant in the LAPD. Not only that, but confronting the abuse can be enormously costly to the challenger in terms of time, effort, money and health.
That said, none of the other plaintiffs started murdering fellow police.
As I argued in Going Postal murder is about the most basic definition of mental illness, whatever the justification — and society has allowed for very few justifications outside of warfare.
But as I also tried to demonstrate, rebellion against injustice is rarely clean and cinematic. Nat Turner, the slave rebel glorified by a culture that uniformly agrees on the evils of slavery, was no Bruce Willis or Dirty Harry. Most of the victims of Turner’s murder spree were what we would call innocent and defenseless white women and children, slaughtered in their homes and in their beds. The first victim of John Brown’s failed insurrection at Harper’s Ferry was a freed black man, Hayward Shepherd.
But there was something more going on with Dorner. He had to cope with creeping paranoia, problems with women, a cinematic sense of self-importance as the world’s protagonist for justice, and plain old shit luck.
His problems with women went beyond the usual trials and tribulations. In seven years, he would file restraining orders against at least two ex-girlfriends, and have a marriage end in abrupt divorce.
In 2006, a woman Dorner dated in Los Angeles named Ariana Williams posted a vicious anonymous review of Dorner on dontdatehimgirl.com posting Dorner’s name and badge number and writing, “This man really hated himself because he's black” and “stay the hell away from him.”
Dorner went to court to get a restraining order against Williams, but he was soon afterwards called up for duty and sent to the Persian Gulf.
A year later, in 2007, Dorner married. The marriage ended in one month. His ex-wife was reported to have said she was “embarrassed” by the brief marriage.
And yet even this story of a failed brief marriage, and what that implied about Dorner's character, fell apart under scrutiny, after an LA Timesreporter visited his ex-wife's neighborhood:
A neighbor of the ex-wife of Christopher Jordan Dorner, the former LAPD officer accused of killing three people, said he often saw the suspect at the woman's Long Beach home.
"I've seen him here. I've said hi, I've bumped [fists] with him a couple times," said 24-year-old Oscar Gonzalez.
"He seemed like a regular guy. He was doing landscaping here in the front for her. He was heavy-built, always in military-style boots," Gonzalez said.
Dorner frequently visited -- until the end of last year.
“He was here for a while, and then he was just gone. It just kind of stopped all of the sudden, two or three months ago,” Gonzalez said.
Other neighbors with a less favorable view of the ex-wife were not so forthcoming and worried for their safety if they spoke up about Dorner, who is the subject of a massive manhunt.
After his divorce, Dorner was involved in a four-year, on-off relationship with an LAPD crime lab employee — which also ended in a restraining order.
Last April, a day after Dorner tried breaking off the relationship, his ex-girlfriend threatened to kill herself, and came to his house, banging on his door and ringing the doorbell. Police reported they told her not to come near Dorner again, and he filed a restraining order against her to keep her away.
Dorner was discharged from the Navy on February 1 — two days before he began his murder rampage — for reasons that have not yet been fully explained (though Dorner blamed his break with the Navy on the LAPD firing). He seems to have been under great pressure, which he even kept from his friends. Getting fired under highly questionable circumstances brought that pressure to bursting point. Dorner’s first two victims, the only two he intentionally targeted — Monica Quan, daughter of his LAPD attorney Randi Quan, and Keith Lawrence, Monica’s fiancé — were chosen to deny his police attorney a happy family life.
"I never had the opportunity to have a family of my own, I'm terminating yours,” Dorner wrote in his manifesto. He murdered the engaged couple in their car, firing several bullets into their bodies, part of what Dorner called his “asymmetrical warfare.”
So far, I haven’t read anyone who made a serious case that ambushing and murdering the daughter of his supposedly-crooked pro-police attorney makes Dorner a rebel hero against violent police power.
The police — mainly the LAPD, but also the San Bernadino police — did their best to affirm Dorner’s worst accusations about them as a reckless, violent out-of-control agency, accusations echoed by many others over the years. He murdered the young couple in cold blood — but he also went out of his way to ensure that others who came across him were not harmed even as he was hunted down in the last hours of his life.
After Dorner broke into a couple’s cabin in Big Bear, the freed husband told reporters that Dorner told them, “'I don't have a problem with you, so I'm not going to hurt you.’ I didn't believe him, I thought he was going to kill us."
Dorner in fact didn’t hurt them:
The couple believes Dorner had been staying in the cabin at least since Friday. Dorner told them he had been watching them by day from inside the cabin as they did work outside. The couple, who live nearby, only entered the unit Tuesday.
"He said we are very hard workers, we're good people. He talked about how he could see Jim working on the snow every day," Karen Reynolds said.
Dorner repeatedly told the couple he just wanted to clear his name. He was calm and methodical during the fifteen-minute ordeal and didn't talk about the people he's accused of shooting, she said.
At one point, Jim Reynolds said, "he huddled down beside me and said 'You're going to be quiet, right? Not make a fuss and let me get away?'"
Dorner then fled in their purple Nissan Rogue.
Nor did he hurt others who weren’t targeted for revenge. His murder rampage was savage, but targeted.
Compare that to the LAPD, which fired on two separate cars during their bungled manhunt, injuring several along the way, including a 71-year-old Latina woman and her 47-year-old daughter delivering newspapers:
As the vehicle approached the house, officers opened fire, unloading a barrage of bullets into the back of the truck. When the shooting stopped, they quickly realized their mistake. The truck was not a Nissan Titan, but a Toyota Tacoma. The color wasn't gray, but aqua blue. And it wasn't Dorner inside the truck, but a woman and her mother delivering copies of the Los Angeles Times.
In an interview with The Times on Friday, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck outlined the most detailed account yet of how the shooting unfolded. Margie Carranza, 47, and her mother, Emma Hernandez, 71, were the victims of "a tragic misinterpretation" by officers working under "incredible tension," he said.
Finally, as Max Blumenthal reported, Dorner was killed or pushed to suicide after police deliberately set fire to his cabin — then covered up and lied about it — leaving nothing but ashes and unanswered questions behind.
Despite that spectacular ending, the real Chris Dorner story, of labor abuse unchecked in an agency which abuses citizens as well as its own, is a far more familiar story to many of us today, sad and unheroic and perhaps even embarrassing. It’s hard not to feel outraged over the abuse that each individual, atomized worker puts up with in this country, which is all the worse if they’re minorities. If anything, Dorner’s violent Hollywood ending suffers from its own pop banalities — he and his supporters framed his “rebellion” through the narrow limits of a culture steeped in bad B-movie justice-through-violence fantasies and sci-fi dystopias. It's a rebellion without politics, emotional entertainment with no resonance, each individual his own atomized protagonist.
Meanwhile, LAPD chief Charlie Beck reversed himself and announced his intention to reopen the case of Christopher Dorner’s alleged wrongful termination. Dorner kept saying his goal was to clear his name, but it’s hard to see what purpose all the violence served if the only result, the best result, is that Dorner’s individual wrongful termination is posthumously recognized and his name “cleared.” That in itself would change nothing fundamentally in the LAPD workplace culture, or the workplace culture at large. It would strip a rebellion of any politics or political significance — a perfect major studio Hollywood ending.