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Why the LAPD's Hunt for Dorner Is Indefensible

The hunt for Christopher Dorner, which injured innocent civilians, reveals how little the department has changed.



In hunting down Christopher J. Dorner, hell-bent on murderous revenge over being fired from the Los Angeles Police Department, officers twice fired without warning on three innocent civilians, wounding two of them.

That innocent people get shot by cops who think their own safety is paramount, whose actions show they value their own lives more than those of people they are sworn to protect, is part of a major problem in America that has not abated much despite decades of efforts to make policing more professional and less brutish. It is the policy of police departments that police cannot kill innocents to save themselves, in effect, that sometimes your sworn duty is to die. But, on the streets, it is far too often another story entirely.

The victims of this Feb. 7 police violence bore no resemblance to Dorner or his vehicle. The deranged Dorner drove a gray Nissan Titan pickup, while LAPD fired a fusillade into a bright blue Toyota Tacoma pickup from behind, while minutes later Torrance, Calif., police rammed a black Honda Ridgeline pickup and then fired three shots.

Dorner was a large, even hulking, black man. In the blue truck were two Hispanic women. Torrance police shot at a surfer, a white male slight in stature.

Luckily none of these innocents died, though one of the women was shot in the back.

Both LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and the Torrance police quickly issued statements excusing this murderous conduct, a rush to judgment that shows how “to protect and serve” sometimes means “to protect our own.” But valuing police lives more than those of others has a long history in policing and especially in Los Angeles and its surrounding communities. So does a long history of racism in police departments that many officers of all colors have fought with limited success.

Over the last three decades LAPD officers have shot people who tossed a typewriter at them from further than the machine would fly, as well as people who threw, or just threatened to throw, knives from distances of 10 feet or more, posing not much of a risk to the officers. They have shot people who were naked and unarmed, or who police said they thought were armed because of a glint of metal or because they mistook a water pistol for a real gun.

LAPD officers, of course, have also come under actual and scary attacks, like the 1997 shootout in North Hollywood with armored bank robbers whose assault rifles spewed more than 1,100 rounds over 44 terrifying minutes before both were fatally shot by courageous officers with far less powerful weapons.

The issue is one of balance. And that includes recognizing that when you take the oath to become a police officer you never acquire the right to shoot innocent people. The LAPD teaches recruits that they assume the risk that they may have to give up their life to protect innocents, a lesson often forgotten on the streets.

Tom Bradley raised this problem of police putting their safety ahead of those they are sworn to protect shortly after he was elected mayor in 1973.

Bradley told me in 1981 that he asked Police Chief Ed Davis to explain why 300 officers were assigned to rooftop and perimeter patrols at police divisions (called precinct houses in most cities). Davis said police needed protection from armed criminals, citing an infamous incident in the mostly black South Central area where several people stood up at a meeting and urged killing officers.

Years later it came out that those urging attacks on police were all undercover officers, part of a massive worldwide LAPD spying operation in which some officers posed as leading communists and radicals for two decades, including officers in Havana and Moscow. (Doubters are invited to read “Chief: My Life in the LAPD,” by the late Daryl F. Gates, especially pages 72 and 231, as well as  my articles about LAPD spying, brutality and mismanagement in the Los Angeles Times in 1980 until early 1983.)

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