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.