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National and world

February 9, 2013

Fugitive’s rant puts focus on evolving LAPD legacy

Fugitive former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner’s claim in an online “manifesto” that his career was undone by racist colleagues conspiring against him comes at a time when it’s widely held that the police department has evolved well beyond the troubled racial legacy of Rodney King and the O.J. Simpson trial.

Dorner, who is suspected in a string of vengeance killings, has depicted himself as a black man wronged, whose badge was unjustly taken in 2008 after he lodged a complaint against a white female supervisor.

“It is clear as day that the department retaliated toward me,” Dorner said in online writings authorities have attributed to him. Racism and officer abuses, he argued, have not improved at LAPD since the King beating but have “gotten worse.”

Dorner’s problems at the LAPD, which ended with his dismissal, played out without public notice more than four years ago, as the department gradually emerged from federal oversight following a corruption scandal. At the time, the officer ranks were growing more diverse and then-Chief William Bratton was working hard to mend relations with long-skeptical minorities.

“This is no longer your father’s LAPD,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared in 2009, after the federal clampdown was ended.

Dorner’s allegations led Police Chief Charlie Beck on Saturday to order a reexamination of the disciplinary case that led to the former officer’s firing. Beck said he wanted to assure the city that the department “is transparent and fair in all the things we do.”

“I am aware of the ghosts of the LAPD’s past, and one of my biggest concerns is that they will be resurrected by Dorner’s allegations of racism,” Beck said in a statement.

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice said the department should review the Dorner case and his claims, while stressing that she is not defending the suspect in any way and is shocked by the attacks.

She said the 10,000-member force headquartered in a glass-walled high-rise in downtown Los Angeles has entered a new era.

“The open racism of the days before is gone,” said Rice, who closely tracks racial issues inside the department and has faced off against the LAPD in court. “The overall culture has improved enormously.”

Police say Dorner shot and killed a couple in a parking garage last weekend in Irvine, the beginning of a rampage he said was retribution for his mistreatment at LAPD. A search for him continued Saturday, centered on the mountain town of Big Bear Lake, where his burned-out pickup truck was found Thursday.

The woman who died was the daughter of a retired police captain who had represented Dorner in the disciplinary proceedings that led to his dismissal. Hours after authorities identified Dorner as a suspect in the double murder, police believe he shot and grazed an LAPD officer and later used a rifle to ambush two Riverside police officers, killing one and seriously wounding the other.

“This is a necessary evil that I do not enjoy but must partake and complete for substantial change to occur within the LAPD,” Dorner wrote in a 14-page online manifesto.

On Friday, a community of online sympathizers formed, echoing complaints against police that linger in some communities. One Facebook page supporting Dorner, which had over 2,300 fans by Friday evening, said “this is not a page about supporting the killing of innocent people. It’s supporting fighting back against corrupt cops and bringing to light what they do.”

The LAPD was once synonymous with violent and bigoted officers, whose culture and brand of street justice was depicted by Hollywood in films like “L.A. Confidential” and “Training Day.”

In 1965, 34 people died when the Watts riots, triggered by a traffic stop of a black man by a white California Highway Patrol officer, exposed deep fractures between blacks and an overwhelmingly white law enforcement community.

In the 1980s, gang sweeps took thousands of youths into custody. The O.J. Simpson trial deepened skepticism of a department already tarnished by the videotaped beating of King, the black motorist who was hit with batons, kicked repeatedly and jolted with stun guns by officers who chased him for speeding. Rioting after a jury with no black members acquitted three of the LAPD officers on state charges and a mistrial was declared for a fourth lasted three days, killing 55 people.

In the Rampart scandal of the late 1990s, scores of criminal convictions were thrown out after members of an anti-gang unit were accused of beating and framing residents in a poor, largely minority neighborhood. A handful of officers were convicted of various crimes and the scandal led to federal oversight that lasted eight years.

Much has changed: Whites now make up roughly a third of the department and, while under federal authority, LAPD moved to require anti-gang and narcotics officers to disclose their finances and worked on new tools to track officer conduct.

When Bratton announced in 2009 he was stepping down, he said he hoped his legacy would be improved race relations. “I believe we have turned a corner in that issue,” he said.

Dorner’s own case in some ways reflects the diversity of the LAPD: the superior he accused of abuse was a woman and the man who represented him at his disciplinary hearing was the first Chinese-American captain in department history.

When Dorner, a Naval reservist, returned to LAPD after deployment to the Middle East in 2007, a training officer became alarmed by his conduct, which included weeping in a police car and threatening to file a lawsuit against the department, records show.

Six days after being notified in August 2007 that he could be removed from the field, Dorner accused the training officer, Sgt. Teresa Evans, of kicking a severely mentally ill man in the chest and left cheek while handcuffing him during an arrest.

However, his report to internal affairs came two weeks after the arrest, police and court records allege. Civilian and police witnesses said they didn’t see Evans kick the man, who had a quarter-inch scratch on his cheek consistent with his fall into a bush. A police review board ruled against Dorner, leading to his dismissal.

Online, Dorner tells a different story. He argues he was “terminated for doing the right thing.”

“I had broken their supposed ‘Blue Line.’. Unfortunately, It’s not JUST US, it’s JUSTICE!!!” he wrote. Dorner said in the posting that his account was supported by the alleged victim. He also claims the board that heard his case had conflicts because of ties to Evans, the training officer.

Rice was quick to point out that while the LAPD culture has improved, there are still what she calls pockets of bad behavior.

That was echoed by Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“There has definitely been improvement from those dark days,” Villagra said. “We are in a vastly different place, but there still are opportunities for improvement in this and any other police department.”

———

Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus contributed to this report.

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