Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Local Newscast
Hear the latest from the WRKF/WWNO Newsroom.

Why Do People Sympathize With Christopher Dorner?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we've heard President Obama's State of the Union speech, but what about the state of Indian Nations? We'll hear more about the message from Indian Country in just a few minutes.

But first we turn to Los Angeles, where the hunt for former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner is now over. Dorner's remains have now been positively identified after they were removed from the mountain cabin that burned down after a fiery standoff with authorities.

Dorner was accused of shooting five police officers and killing two, along with two other people, a killing spree that amounted to a one-man war. Dorner said he was fighting to bring attention to what he called a culture of racism that cost him his career. While there are a lot of questions remaining about this tragic story, we wanted to dig into some of the old questions that have been haunting the LAPD for years.

Questions that surfaced, for example, after the arrest of Rodney King or those audio tapes during the OJ Simpson trial of Detective Mark Fuhrman's use of the "N" word, among other things. We wanted to find out just what are the relations between the Los Angeles police and minority communities, including minority officers.

So we've called Karen Grigsby Bates, a reporter for NPR who's been covering this story for quite some time. Welcome back, Karen. Thanks so much for joining us once again.


MARTIN: Can you remind us what Christopher Dorner's specific grievances were and how they were communicated?

BATES: Well, he had lots of grievances, if anybody's seen the pages-long manifestos that have been released all over the Internet. But specifically, in connection with the Los Angeles Police Department, Dorner was a - he felt he'd been scape-goated after he reported that his training officer had treated a suspect abusively.

He said the officer had kicked a mentally ill man in the head after subduing him, which is something the officer denied. Then Dorner was accused of filing a false report against this officer. He was brought before a grievance committee and he seems to have felt that there was this code of silence that prevented other officers who were there from saying, yes, we saw that.

No one said that they saw it. In fact, many people said they saw no abuse. So the committee recommended that Dorner be dismissed. He was dismissed and his week-long vendetta throughout southern California was the end result. He said that he felt that he might lose his life, but it was worth it if he could clear his name.

Ironically, of course, that hasn't happened yet.

MARTIN: One of the things I think that's caught a lot of people's attention, including ours, is that there have been a number of Facebook pages and a number of other kind of messages of support for Christopher Dorner. On Facebook there's a page We Stand With Christopher Dorner. It has now over 24,000 likes.

There are comments like: Rest in Peace. You are a true hero. I'm sorry, but people out there just don't trust cops and they are angry. How are people - how are people in L.A. responding to this? And as a person who's covered this story, what do you think this means?

BATES: Well, I think that there are a couple of different reactions. There were - almost universally people are saying nothing condones murder. And this is something that the mainstream media hasn't picked up on very much. You know, it kind of worries me because it was like after O.J. Simpson was acquitted and all you saw were people of color jumping up and down going yay, yay, O.J.'s free.

Well, I interviewed a lot of people who said we think a travesty was done and this is wrong and we really resent having, you know, these scenes of joy shown all over as if this is in the entire black community. So the entire black community is not jumping up and down about this. But there are people who say that there are still serious problems with the police.

There are serious problems with the way policing is done in communities of color. Almost everybody says, in general, the atmosphere is much better now than it was, say, in 2001 when the LAPD was forced into federal oversight because they thought they had done such a bad job of managing themselves.

But there's still a lot of residual suspicion from the bad old days of L.A. policing, which go back for decades.

MARTIN: One of the people that led that independent monitoring that was ordered by the Justice Department that you just referred to was somebody named Michael Cherkasky. We actually gave him a call to ask him for his perception about how or whether things have changed over those eight years. This is what he told us.

MICHAEL CHERKASKY: There was enormous changes over those eight years. I think the court concluded, and certainly I concluded, that there had been a culture change and a culture shift over those eight years, where there was a respect for civil rights. The idea of racial profiling, of bias policing, was something that was, I think, substantially changed.

The use of force and the training for use of force, really was changed to be consistent with the constitution of the United States.

MARTIN: Now, Michael Cherkasky also said that these were very long-standing problems, that it might take a long time for perceptions to catch up with what he viewed as the reality. And I wanted to ask about your - how you respond to that.

BATES: I think that's probably true. I think that when, you know, I talk to people out and around in the community they're saying, yeah, well, we remember when they pushed my uncle to the ground and made him assume the position in front of his children.

Or we remember when we were eight years old and they stopped us and shook us down and said, where did you get that milk that you have in your bike, you know, your bike basket. So, there are long memories and also a palpable feeling that the justice system still does have very much of a two-tiered aspect to it.

You know, there's sort of one way of treating them, one way of treating us, and the us isn't equitable to the them. Those things have gotten closer together and I think that it's, you know, this is a big institution. It's had a long history of sort of a paramilitary relationship with the community under William Parker who was the chief who was credited with, sort of, turning the LAPD into this really lean, mean - and I use that term advisedly - paramilitary policing machine.

The whole goal of dealing with communities of color under the Parker administration was to contain and suppress, so the rest of quote/unquote "normal L.A." would feel comfortable in its neighborhoods. That's changed tremendously. The last two chiefs, Bill Bratton, Charlie Beck, had been out and around in the community.

They have answered questions. They have said sometimes, yeah, whoops, that was a mistake. We've got to do better. And I think that's gone a long way in incurring much better will than the police department enjoyed, say, 20 years ago.

MARTIN: Well, you talked to L.A. police chief Charlie Beck a little while ago, and I just want to play a short clip from that conversation. Here it is. And then you can tell us what the context of it was.

CHIEF CHARLIE BECK: Big organizations, and this is a big organization, don't change overnight. You know, people don't change the way they think about things overnight. And it did take some amount of time, but I think the transition has been fairly complete now.

MARTIN: What was the context of that conversation?

BATES: Well, I was sort of asking him do you think that the community - that the police department has changed this much, that out in communities of color people feel comfortable with you all now. You know, you say that this is the totally new and different LAPD, but people aren't necessarily buying that.

And his response was, look, it is a big organization. It has a lot of people in it. Those people, a lot of people who were sort of like the remnants of Bill Parker, Daryl Gates, who was the police chief during the L.A. riots, who got roundly excoriated for how he handled that, those people are retiring out.

They're dying out. The people who are replacing them are not the same guys and women. They're not the same color. They don't have the same gender orientation. They have a different idea about policing. And he comes from a long line of policemen, Charlie Beck does. And in fact, Daryl Gates, was, sort of, his putative godfather.

And I said what would your dad, who was an officer and Captain Gates say about this? Do they think you're getting soft? And he goes no, but, you know, they understand that the good ol' days, as they see them, you know, of the L.A. Police Department, those are not coming back.

This is the police department for this time for this city for what it looks like now. We have to adjust. We have to move on. We have to evolve. That's what we're doing but it's not going to happen overnight.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, Chief Beck agreed to reopen the investigation into Dorner's firing, which happened in 2008. And he made this announcement in the height of the manhunt. Was that a - forgive me - a public relations ploy to try to get Dorner to lay down his weapons and to come forward? And is that investigation still going to go forward now that Dorner is understood to have died in that fire?

BATES: I think Dorner may be dead, but the reopening of that investigation is not. I think that they have to do it because they're - all eyes are turned on them right now, and there is a fair amount of suspicion that there was something funny about Dorner's disciplinary hearing. And what I keep hearing when I interview people is: Well, if it was all on the up and up, why aren't they reopening it? Why can't we see what was on the up and up?

And I think that this is Chief Beck's decision to go, look. You know, stop dreaming about the black helicopters and everything else. We're going to open things up. If we've made a mistake, we will rectify. We will deal with it, but we are going to show you what happened. And I think that transparency is going to go a great, long way towards maintaining or recovering some of the good will that the police had earned.

You know, they have to do this every day. They have to go out and earn their good will every day, and every slip brings them back to - closer to square one, which is where they don't want to go.

MARTIN: Well, just briefly, Karen, before we let you go, though: Dorner - in this manifesto that I assume we now believe is genuine - does name names. I mean, he talks about people who he believes were dirty, as he discussed. But he also talks about people who he said were mentors to him and who were supportive of him and who taught him how to be a good officer. But he also says that this isn't just simply a white, black, brown issue, that there were African-American and Latino officers on the force who were just as brutal and, in his view, just as racist as anybody else.

And, you know, he just says this is the whole cultural problem within the force. This is not just about the force versus the community. This is within the force. And I just wondered: Is anybody going to be addressing that in the days ahead, and investigating whether there's any truth to those claims, even if he was a troubled man?

BATES: I think they probably will, and I think that one of the most interesting things about all of this is that his rant, his manifesto, sort of pulled the curtain back on the inner workings of how officers feel about the LAPD culture. And I think people will want to know more about that. I think they're going to want to know how true that is, the extent of that truth, if there is any truth to it, and what's going to be done to make corrections to this course so that they don't slide backwards into that paramilitary policing that got them into such trouble and that earned them federal oversight that they didn't want.

They want to be a free and independent police department. Communities of color want to feel that they're being policed equitably, and L.A. wants to feel safe. So there's work to be done.

MARTIN: NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates joined us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Karen, thank you so much for joining us.

BATES: You're so welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.