The Christopher Dorner Case: Law Enforcement Culture and Police Cynicism
By Ken K. Gourdin
The case of former Los Angeles Police Officer Christopher Dorner, who shot and killed three police officers and several civilians before succumbing in a firefight with law enforcement and fire at the cabin he commandeered in the resort area of Big Bear Lake, California, should cause law enforcement to take a hard look at what role police culture might have played in creating him.
Let’s get some things straight at the outset: No, I do not condone what Christopher Dorner did, nor am I asking readers to “understand” it in any way. Like most everyone else, while I consider Mr. Dorner’s death unfortunate from the standpoint that the answers to many unanswered questions died with him, I hope and pray that nothing like this ever happens again. And no, nothing I say herein should be read as an excuse for bad behavior—and especially not as an excuse for bad behavior by police officers. Anything I say herein is offered by way of explanation, and not by way of excuse. Still, only by taking a clear-eyed look at its potential causes can we begin to arrive at workable solutions to the gargantuan problem implicated by the Dorner situation.
As the son of a career law enforcement officer who spent 43 years on the job, I can testify—at least second-hand—how difficult it can be to avoid letting the job turn you into a cynical, jaded, and even bitter human being. After you’ve been lied to enough, it becomes difficult to avoid the trap of assuming that everyone is lying to you until they prove otherwise. After you’ve been called enough names and been derided, ridiculed, and stereotyped seemingly constantly, it becomes difficult to avoid falling into the trap of concluding that there are only two types of people in the world: cops—and everyone else.
After you’ve been told enough that you always arrest, stop, and cite the wrong people—and that you never arrest, stop, and cite the right people; that you’re never there when anyone needs you, but you’re always there when they don’t need you; that rather than being concerned with what people do, you’re simply concerned with what they look like—especially with whether they’re the “right” or the “wrong” color; that you shouldn’t have shot somebody, regardless of how reasonable your belief was that your life, other officers’ lives, or the lives of the public were in danger; or, even worse, that you should have shot somebody but you didn’t, and some innocent person paid a heavy price as a result; given all of this criticism, it’s a wonder that more officers don’t become even more jaded, and even faster.
People wonder why officers go to gruesome accident and crime scenes and act the way they do: how could they possibly laugh at such times? Is it simply that they’ve fallen prey to the cynicism and jadedness that runs rampant in the profession? Perhaps. But when a patient once observed that the propensity of television’s Dr. Hawkeye Pierce, M.D., of M*A*S*H fame, was to make jokes (seemingly) about everything, he replied that joking about it was the only way he could open his mouth about it without screaming. Police work often is the same way. As unsettling as it might be to see or hear of someone making jokes at such seemingly-inappropriate times, the alternative would be even more unsettling: nobody wants to see an officer scream, cry, or otherwise lose composure.
Given all of this, it’s a wonder that even more officers don’t adopt an “us-against-them”—an “us-against-the-world”—mentality even faster. As much as I would hope that the best police officers won’t tolerate even one “bad apple” in a barrelful; as much as I would hope that they would stand up against racism, other stereotyping, cynicism, brutality, and other ills so common police work; it’s little wonder that that “thin blue line” seems to become thinner and thinner the longer anyone looks at it.
If there really is a largely-silent majority in the public at large which supports the good that officers do; if there really is a largely-silent majority of good officers who don’t support racism, stereotyping, brutality, and cynicism; then the problem does not lie as much with the vocal (perhaps sizeable) minority of people who criticize and with the (perhaps sizeable) minority of officers who have fallen prey to these ills; the real problem lies with the silent majority of officers and of the public: silence is complicity. I don’t know how many bad apples are in the Los Angeles Police Department’s barrel. (Not many, I hope; but I’m a realist.) Is that barrel more than half-full of bad apples, or is it simply largely full a few bad apples, along with a tragic majority of silent, complicit apples?
I don’t know how many of Christopher Dorner’s allegations have merit, or if any of them do. I don’t know how many of them contain a grain of truth but are otherwise infected by his pathologically-cynical (yet all-too-common) outlook. Regardless, there is no excuse for what he did. Had my father been employed by the LAPD, I might well have been—in fact, I might go so far as to say that I would have been—one of his potential targets. Since that’s the case, I certainly don’t support Dorner’s methods for airing his grievances.
That said, if anything good can come out of this incident, the Dorner case should be cause for every law enforcement agency in the country—and all of the officers whom those agencies employ—to consider how big of a role law enforcement culture might have played in creating Dorner, and whether they, too, might have begun—even if only with a few steps—to go down that road. To be sure, few, if any, law enforcement officers would allow any grievances they may have to manifest themselves in the way in which Dorner has manifested his. But if cynicism and jadedness, racism, other stereotyping, and brutality played a role (however small) in creating Christopher Dorner, law enforcement’s powers-that-be would do well to ponder what must be done to prevent creating another, and to implement corrective action without undue delay.
 As I write elsewhere, “The solution to the problem of dishonesty isn’t for officers to assume everyone is lying until presumed liars prove otherwise. The solution is for them to adapt their methods to become better at determining who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.” See Ken K. Gourdin (January 6, 2013), “Police tactics need review to protect the innocent,” The Salt Lake Tribune O5, http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/opinion/55560071-82/officers-intelligence-police-public.html.csp, last accessed today. This principle has broader application. Whatever good cause may exist for officers’ cynicism and jadedness, they owe the public the benefit of the doubt of not assuming that everyone has broken (or will break) the law, or that anyone would lie to them (or otherwise would take advantage of them) if given the chance. I believe the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as the law in general, demand that officers take such a posture toward the general public.