Sunil Dutta is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. The views expressed here do not represent the LAPD.
Christopher Dorner, the former L.A. police officer who died Tuesday after allegedly going on a murder spree, said racism was behind the Los Angeles Police Department’s decision to fire him in 2009, after he accused another cop of kicking a mentally ill man. In a perverted mission of vengeance, Dorner allegedly killed two civilians and two officers.
“I know I will be vilified by the LAPD and the media,” Dorner wrote in an online manifesto. “Unfortunately, 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.”
Given its history of scandal, the LAPD has spent a decade building a kinder, gentler organization and making significant strides in community-based policing. Even past detractors, including civil rights lawyer Connie Rice, admit that the LAPD has changed since the early 1990s. But people still associate the department with events of 20 years ago: the acquittal of officers accused of beating Rodney King, the subsequent L.A. riots and the resignation of Chief Daryl Gates.
The department’s problems aren’t all in the past, either: In November, a jury awarded former officer Pedro Torres $2.8 million after finding that officials retaliated when he verified claims about an allegedly racist supervisor. During the past decade, 17 officers have won million-dollar-plus verdicts in lawsuits claiming harassment, discrimination and retaliation. African American officers, including some supervisors I’ve spoken with, say in private that they don’t feel like they are part of the system and don’t trust it.
Indeed, some people even sympathize with Dorner, despite his unconscionable acts. “He’s been a real-life superhero to many people,” Columbia Universityprofessor Marc Lamont Hill told CNN. “People aren’t rooting for him to kill innocent people — they’re rooting for somebody who was wronged to get a kind of revenge against the system. It is almost like watching ‘Django Unchained’ in real life.”
Police Chief Charlie Beck said he would reopen the case that led to Dormer’s termination — not to appease an alleged murderer but to prevent the ghosts of the LAPD’s past from being resurrected.
While Beck made a wise move, it doesn’t go far enough to assure people of the LAPD’s integrity. We need to change the way complaints against police officers are adjudicated, putting investigative power in the hands of the people.
As long as police have existed, officers have been accused of racism, brutality and covering up for their friends. In the past, a lack of accountability often meant that police organizations did not pay serious attention to or even record citizen complaints. As a result, many citizens still don’t trust police departments to investigate their own. Similarly, officers do not trust internal affairs investigators or disciplinary processes.
I worked as an internal affairs investigator in the LAPD for about three years. When I visited police divisions to look into complaints against officers, I was usually greeted by the same question: “Who are you going to burn today?” Officers often believed that internal affairs was out to get them on flimsy charges.
At the same time, when I interviewed community members who had filed complaints against officers, I was disappointed to learn that, despite my reassurances and best efforts to conduct impartial inquiries, many complainants believed that a fair investigation was simply not possible. Nor do misconduct investigations satisfy a skeptical public. If an officer is exonerated, the community often believes that malfeasance is being covered up.
Police serve the community — any concerns about their integrity must be transparently, expeditiously and judiciously resolved. Relying on cops to police cops is neither efficient nor confidence-inspiring.
The solution? Abolish internal affairs units and outsource their work to external civilian agencies.
Police have slowly started to incorporate civilian oversight in their misconduct investigations. For example, the LAPD’s office of inspector general has oversight over the department’s internal discipline. Yet, while the inspector general’s staff receives copies of every personnel complaint filed and tracks and audits selected cases, it does not have the authority to impose discipline. Nor do most civilian review boards, which are not empowered to conduct independent investigations. This leads detractors to say that such boards are ineffectual.
Police have long resisted external oversight. Some of us say that those who aren’t in uniform do not understand the intricacies of law enforcement. Won’t civilian investigators be harsher toward officers — unsympathetic to the challenges faced by beat cops battling armed bad guys?
These self-serving arguments perpetuate archaic policies. Outsourcing misconduct investigations to civilians would directly address community concerns about the “blue wall of silence.” Officers who fear retaliation for reporting misconduct would feel more comfortable working with an external agency. In this system, complaints such as Dorner’s about the vindictiveness of superiors would all but disappear.
Using sergeants and detectives as internal affairs investigators costs police departments a lot. These supervisors are paid more and have more seniority. Assigning seasoned officers to internal affairs also depletes the number of field personnel who could prevent mistakes and misconduct by patrol officers in the first place. Outsourcing misconduct investigations would be far less expensive and would let veteran supervisors do the jobs they should be doing.
And why shouldn’t every police contact with the community — every traffic stop, every interrogation — be recorded on video? If Dorner and his partner had had a cop-cam, his claim that his partner used excessive force might have been resolved the same day. There’s just no excuse for not recording police contacts with the public. Technology has made cameras effective and affordable. Some officers already record their arrests to protect themselves against false allegations of misconduct. This should be standard operating procedure.
If even one citizen thinks that Dorner may have had a point, that’s too many. The only answer to those worried about police conspiracies is transparency. Only by opening our doors can we build trust, and truly serve and protect.