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Southern California is under a blue alert, meaning an officer-related shooting. Law enforcement from all over the region has mobilized to find a former Los Angeles Police Department officer, 33-year-old Chris Dorner, now accused of killing three people – including an officer.
Mr. Dorner, who was dismissed from the LAPD in 2008 for making false statements, is thought to be armed with an assault rifle and other weapons. His apparent motive for the killings, according to a manifesto he posted online, are perceived wrongs done to him by the LAPD. Among those killed is the daughter of a police captain who represented him in disciplinary hearings at the time.
While thousands are participating in the manhunt for Dorner in Southern California and Nevada, more than catching a criminal is at stake, say experts. The morale of an entire department hangs in the balance, as does a vital link in effective law enforcement: the public perception of police.
“The police need the public to trust and respect them,” says former police officer Frank Rodriguez, who served as a patrolman in Progresso, Texas, during the 1990s and is now an assistant professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa.
“When an officer goes rogue and turns on the public, it undermines the communication police rely on between the public and law enforcement to do their job,” he says, adding, “the public can’t help but think if this officer can go bad, then maybe someone else can too.”
The manhunt takes on a special importance for officers tracking one of their own, says Frank Scafidi, a former Los Angeles deputy sheriff and FBI agent, “because cops take an oath to make sure that they live their lives – personally and professionally – at a level above ordinary civilians.”
The issue of a public’s image of police matters, “because a cop has the ultimate power to deny your freedom – indeed, your life. You don’t need bad cops reinforcing all of the negative cop stereotypes served up to the population in TV shows and Hollywood movies,” says Mr. Scafidi, adding, “so when a cop goes bad, good cops go into hyper-drive to, in this case, apprehend him before any more damage is done.”
Scafidi says he knew bad cops and agents. “Let’s not forget those FBI agents who sold out our nation to foreign governments,” he notes, adding, “that is a stain that is never completely erased – try as we might in the subsequent years to make sure it never happens again.”
Law enforcement has a special trust within the communities it serves and it is built hour after hour, day after day, he says, “on the street where real people see life much differently than it is presented in ‘reality’ television shows.”
But that goodwill can be erased, or at least seriously eroded, says Scafidi, “through the disgraceful acts of a single officer who ignores his oath and acts like a fool.”
The problem goes both directions. While Dorner was dismissed for making false statements, his 5,900-word manifesto details what he considers a routinely corrupt police department that looks the other way when officers misbehave.
“I will bring unconventional and asymmetrical warfare to those in LAPD uniform whether on or off duty," Dorner said in the manifesto, according to the Associated Press. A Facebook posting attributed to Dorner refers to the current wave of shootings: “This is a necessary evil that I do not enjoy but must partake and complete for substantial change to occur within the LAPD and reclaim my name."
While Dorner’s manifesto addresses perceived wrongs against him by the system, a lingering problem for US police agencies is oftentimes the opposite: the refusal, or inability, to prosecute and terminate felonious or even violent miscreants on the force.
According to a 2011 investigation by the Sarasota, Fla., Herald-Tribune, one of 20 current police officers in the state had committed crimes that could have earned other citizens a felony conviction, and they were kept on the job often through complicity by other officers, superiors and the union appeals process.
In one such case, the paper documented the case of an officer who retained his badge despite having been accused of stalking and domestic violence, and who had been found with counterfeit money and cocaine during inspections of his vehicle.
“Law enforcement agencies around the state employ officers despite cases of serious misconduct in their past, involving everything from violence and perjury to drugs and sexual assault,” the paper noted.
Such insular tendencies speak to the powerful bonds among police officers, and how the job can be deeply and even inextricably entwined in a persona.
“It’s an occupation with a very special sense of identity, and you have all these really unique symbols of the job – including the gun,” says Samuel Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska, at Omaha, and author of “The New World of Police Accountability.”
“When an officer is going through the process of suspension or being terminated, nobody wants to do it,” says Walker. “I heard a story about a police department in Florida where, when it came time for this one officer to go, all the lieutenants just disappeared out of the building, they all vanished – that’s how traumatic it is for many officers, and how difficult it is for other officers to say, ‘You need to give us your badge and gun.’ ”
This LAPD cop-on-cop manhunt “is certainly harmful to the whole image of policing, but I think there’s also a danger to overreacting,” says Mr. Walker. “This is very unique, as opposed to the pattern of police officers being called to domestic violence situations and not enforcing the law when the assailant is one of their fellow officers. That’s a situation I worry about much more.”