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Can We Prevent the Next Chris Dorner?

Law enforcement has to do a better job of preventing unstable people from joining the profession.

May 21, 2013  |  by - Also by this author

Photo via Facebook.
Photo via Facebook.
"But we must not call by the name of duty, as we do every day, the bitterness and asperity of the soul that is born of private interest and passion; nor must we call a treacherous and malicious conduct by the name of courage. Their mischievous and violent propensities they call zeal. It is not the cause that excites them but their self-interest. They stir up war, not because it is just, but because it is war." —Michel de Montaigne

Unlike most cornered suspects, the active, retired, or terminated cop who fights his former peers does so with a weapons cache that is wholly different from that of the usual suspects, one that comes with the experience, training, and tactical awareness unique to those who have worked in the profession.

When ATF agents attempted to serve a warrant on Aug. 31, 2001, the subject of their investigation, a former Arcadia, Calif., police officer named James Beck who was wanted for weapons charges and for impersonating a U.S. Marshal, opened fire on them. During the ensuing shootout, Beck exploited the second-story high ground, firing upon law enforcement personnel on scene. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Dep. Jake Kuredjian was shot in the head and killed instantly.

Officer Robert Baker of the Cleveland Police Department shot and seriously wounded two security guards in an unprovoked attack. He then retreated to his home where he fired upon his fellow officers when they attempted to contact him. In the process, Baker shot at and nearly killed his own brother, a fellow officer who'd knocked at the door.

In the aftermath of such incidents, the offending officer is often dismissed as "just another dirtbag;" his or her relationship to law enforcement is diminished and its import lessened.

"That was no cop," is an expression that is often heard. "He was just a criminal with a badge."

But while such rhetoric provides isolation for the shooter and insulation for the profession, it does little to help us understand the problem and even less to prevent similar threats in the future, threats that appoint themselves to more elevated rungs in the officer safety arena.

If the question of what the profession can do to mitigate the threat of self-generated monsters wasn't routinely addressed before former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner's recent rampage, let's hope it will be now.

Thinning the Herd

Finding a silver lining to the Dorner episode can be a daunting challenge. But the wealth of information Dorner availed us, both consciously and not, through his now infamous manifesto transcends the strategic. For Dorner's manifesto simultaneously revealed his inner demons and reminded us of just what makes some tick and others explode.

Over the course of several days in February, Dorner attempted to portray himself as a West Coast Serpico, a good cop wronged by a corrupt system. But Serpico was not a one-man vigilante force hell-bent on exacting perceived justice on those he thought had wronged him, and no man or woman has come forth to repudiate LAPD's dismissal of Dorner, salvage his reputation, or otherwise validate his homicidal campaign of subverted justice.

If there are take away lessons from this tragic episode, they may well lie in an increased awareness of the profession's need to continually maintain the highest of standards. And the first step to that end is improving the hiring process and the caliber of personnel it hires.

All law enforcement personnel pass through a series of theoretical checkpoints. There's a hiring process that often includes a background investigation, polygraph, and a psychological exam, all geared toward identifying less desirables before they are employed and become manifest concerns.

But the psychological exam used by most agencies—the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) 567 questionnaire—is designed only to assess basic emotional fitness, and as such, tends to weed out only about five percent of applicants. This means that it is up to the training academy to weed out those who have flown beneath the radar of the polygraph and background investigations.

Optimal thinning of the herd works best during tough economic times when the supply of applicants is high and the number of available positions is low. With the luxury of time to evaluate candidates, departments are more likely to develop a stronger pool of qualified recruits.

"In the past when we've been in a hurry to hire lots of people during the background process we've not been as fastidious as we could be or had the time to really look at these applicants over a longer period of time," says Sgt. Mike Siegfried of the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department. "With fewer jobs to offer and more qualified candidates, that's a positive thing. We're getting people with higher education than in the past wanting to apply and become a police officer."

But if the profession was batting a thousand in such arenas, it would obviate the need for everything from civil litigation units to internal affairs bureaus; many a black mark would've been prevented for most agencies. Fortunately, there are other early warning systems in place.

Once hired, the employee passes under the evaluative scrutiny of academy drill instructors and patrol training officers. Perhaps none more valuable than the field training officers themselves, those men and women who sit side by side with recruits and acquire first-hand knowledge as to their wants, needs, and priorities. FTOs are often in the best position to point out the bogeyman at the door and the last chance for the system to identify and correct a wrong before it becomes metastasized.

But it doesn't always work out.

Unique Dangers

When the worst-case scenario becomes reality, there are a multitude of concerns, both immediate and long-term. These range from lawsuits to damage to the agency's reputation and even loss of human life.

When an officer or former officer decides to attack fellow officers, there is a synergy at work, a melding of the skill sets the person has acquired through training and experience and the conditioned mindset to fight whatever the odds. Tack on the emotional component, and it is easy to recognize how officers can have their hands full on every conceivable front in dealing with such a threat. Negotiation becomes more problematic and strategic and tactical options are narrowed.

The inherent challenges of such a situation transcend the usual operational logistics, for beyond the usual concerns for community welfare they obligate a reflective refractory period. In the short run, the agency under attack needs to mitigate or eliminate the immediate threat. In the long run, it needs to prevent another officer from taking such a disastrous path.

None of this comes cheaply. The costs for the Dorner operation to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department alone were more than $550,000; long-term aggregate costs for LAPD, including pending litigation, will be much higher. And while an argument could be readily made that the money was well spent in mitigating the threat to the community and the families of law enforcement personnel, how much cheaper might things have been if Dorner's hatred had been scotched early on?

In the aftermath of 9/11, government officials took an "Argo"-type page out of the Hollywood playbook, commissioning authors to envision various threats to the country's welfare. Our profession needs to do something similar and imagine what manner of systemic threats it may face ahead of time. In an age where cops freely avail themselves of the home addresses of co-workers to embarrassing ends such as the case of a former female Minnesota police officer whose former co-workers illegally accessed her driver's license history 425 times such imaginings should not be difficult, particularly in the context of someone with a Dorner-like agenda.

The Elephant in the Room

Attorney General Eric Holder has characterized America as a nation of cowards when it comes to discussing race. While the Attorney General's credibility might be suspect elsewhere, he may be onto something here. For race played a substantial role not only in Dorner's campaign, but in many of his spiritual antecedents such as the campaign waged by New Orleans sniper Mark Essex that resulted in the deaths of five police officers and a law enforcement explorer. It factored into Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad's plan to kill a Baltimore cop before detonating planted explosives at an officer's funeral so as to kill more officers. Dorner's racial sensitivity was thematic throughout his career with LAPD.

To what extent did the precedent actions of such men play a role in Dorner's actions? The question is no less reasonable to contemplate than that of the degree to which Dorner himself may influence others—and perhaps as unanswerable.

Like Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and the Unabomber's manifesto, Dorner's diatribe found sympathizers. A Facebook page titled "We Stand With Christopher Dorner" garnered more than 18,000 followers; Website pages featured proclamations that the 6-foot, 270-pound Dorner was "the victim of a smear campaign." Twitter users began marking their comments with "#TeamDorner" in support of the ex-officer.

Psychologists and academics also weighed in on the matter. Marc Lamont Hill, an associate professor of English education at Columbia University, found parallels to Quentin Tarantino's ultra-violent slavery revenge film "Django Unchained." Elayne Rapping, a retired professor of American and media studies at the State University of New York in Buffalo, told CNN that for some people Dorner's episode tapped into the same underdog appeal  of Bonnie and Clyde—prolific cop-killers, themselves—and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

SWAT consultant Bob O'Brien finds Hollywood and the news media culpable in part for the public's admiration for officers and former officers turning on their agencies, noting that the extent to which their portrayals of both law enforcement and the anti-hero plays a role.

"The media never once stopped to consider that it was their coverage of the LAPD that may have created the cultural background noise for Dorner's belief system," says O'Brien. "Liberal Hollywood and the media regularly portray law enforcement as a bastion of bigotry and nastiness. Every depiction of LAPD in the last 20 years has focused on its supposed hatred for minorities, its corruption, its violence. If we are going to suppose that culture creates criminals, then leftist culture is responsible for Dorner."

O'Brien refrains from pointing any fingers at LAPD, noting that it was in fact its success in terminating Dorner that precipitated his outrage. But while acknowledging a possible catch-22 aspect to the equation, he wonders how often things have been unnecessarily protracted so that possible threats remain in position to acquire additional skill sets and more emotionally invested and entwined with the profession so that any perceived transgression becomes magnified.

"You have a problem child? 'Oh, we'll move him to a different district or precinct,'" says O'Brien, parroting an attitude that he believes has been practiced too long among many agencies and departments. "We've all seen this intra-agency shuffle with these types getting moved around like a queen in a three-card Monte game. Then when they blow up, it's like dealing with a spurned lover."

O'Brien cites such a syndrome close to home to make a point: An applicant to his former SWAT unit presented himself as an outwardly viable candidate, one that may well have succeeded in being accepted to the team. Then the unit was apprised that the applicant was being investigated for the arson of his ex-girlfriend's house. It was the kind of information that would not have come their way through the usual channels. Fortunately, someone decided to act in the best interests of the department and community.

Because of this experience, O'Brien believes managers should listen to credible concerns and act on them. "I'm not condoning witch hunts, vendettas, and ill-founded rumors that are designed to kill an employee's reputation," he says. "I simply believe that you can get a lot more done through the informal network when it comes to getting the straight scoop than going through the usual sanitized hoops. Good people work well with other good people. And you really don't want to be doing search warrants and arrest warrants on people who are trained in your tactics."

Warning Signs

Don Alwes, a trainer for the National Tactical Officers Association, echoes O'Brien's concerns. He also wonders if supervisorial cowardice won't play a role in the fire next time, much as it did in the tragic Fort Hood shooting.

"It's established that the military overlooked warnings and let Hassan get tactical training and access to weapons and put him in a position where others were vulnerable to him," Alwes says. "One of the lessons there is that we cannot allow political correctness to overtake safety issues. We tell schools and businesses that if they have a student or employee or customer who is displaying warning signs they are supposed to do something about it. They are supposed to let someone know, they are supposed to address it. We have to take our own medicine about that."

And where they can't prevent the "out of left field" attacks, Alwes hopes that law enforcement agencies at least have appropriate contingencies in place.

"We need to be cognizant that our opponents may be every bit as well trained and well armed as we are," Alwes explains. "We should be prepared for some options to deal with that."

Incidents such as Dorner's rampage are thankfully rare. But the fact that they do occur and carry with them the threat of exponentially greater losses obligates a degree of introspection and initiative from the profession. If not, law enforcement may well be saddled with the question of not how to prevent the next Chris Dorner, but how to stop him.

Tags: LAPD, Chris Dorner, Background Investigations, San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sheriff, Officer Fired, Officer Psychology, Assaults on Officers


Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

Jack Betz @ 5/28/2013 9:13 PM

I've said this before. The only place we can recurit officers is the human race. Flawed, imperfect people. Since the hiring process is no bettter, from time to time we are going to let in people that have no business being in law enforcement. All we can do is minamize the amount that get in and bear the pain when we fail.

Ima Leprechaun @ 5/31/2013 5:10 AM

Most Police Agencies blindly hire former military personnel. They rarely do the same kind of backgrounds they would do for a civilian applicant. Hiring from the military gene pool gives an angency the wrong type of Police Officer. Former military are harsh and vendictive towards the general public and they are used to using force for minor situations and really don't have the right temperament for Law Enforcement. Our Military are taught that the world is "black and white" (law wise) but Police work is almost exclusively "grey area". From the former military I have worked with they absolutely hate the general public and have litte regard for the tasks they feel are beneath them, like public relations. Every once in a while a well rounded one comes along but most are too overbearing with public interaction and they cause more problems than they are worth. But these are the police officers most agencies want and its a bad policy.

Ken Carr @ 6/5/2013 8:03 AM

IMA I must disagree, in over thirty years working with and associating with law enforcement personnel, I have come in contact with prior military members who are now members of law enforcement I've not seen this anger towards civilians or this black and white mindset, while on patrol, dealing with members of the publics or suspects.

Troop @ 6/15/2013 2:34 AM

Its called an extensive background check.

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