By Steven Greenhut | Franklin Center
Police typically say that their top mission is to protect “public safety.” That’s the lingo. But the recently concluded manhunt for former Los Angeles Police Department officer Christopher Dorner, accused of murdering four people after releasing a manifesto decrying his 2008 firing from the force, suggests that concern about the public’s actual safety sometimes is fairly low on the list of police priorities.
Last weekend, police opened fire on a 71-year-old newspaper carrier and her 47-year-old daughter who had the misfortune of driving a pick-up truck police thought might be Dorner’s. The Los Angeles police detectives who opened fire on them, putting two bullets in the older woman’s back, didn’t do much double checking. The carriers’ truck was a different make and color from Dorner’s.
As the women’s attorney told the Los Angeles Times: “The problem with the situation is it looked like the police had the goal of administering street justice and in so doing, didn’t take the time to notice that these two older, small women don’t look like a large black man.”
This could be written off as a sad fluke, except that 25 minutes later different officers opened fire on a different truck — once again getting key details wrong. Can’t officers at least check the license plate, and issue a warning, before opening fire?
“Nobody trains police officers to look for one of their own,” said Maria Haberfeld, a police-training professor at John Jay College in New York, according to the website News One. “I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes and I don’t think anybody else would.”
We all understand the situation. But saying that we wouldn’t want to be “in their shoes” is no excuse for such dangerous behavior. The police wouldn’t excuse a member of the public for misusing a firearm, regardless of how stressed out that person felt.
News One also published the photograph of a gray Ford truck in the Los Angeles area with a hand-made “Don’t Shoot, Not Dorner, Thank You” poster on the back window. T-shirts and bumper stickers have popped up to similar effect. Those are funny in a dark way, but police ought to recognize how poorly this reflects on them and their strategies. It’s sad when people are more worried about the police than they are about a murderer on the loose.
“Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed,” argued former San Jose Police Chief Joe McNamara, a Hoover Institution scholar, in a Wall Street Journal article in 2006. “An emphasis on ‘officer safety’ and paramilitary training pervades today’s policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn’t shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed.”
Murders are sadly routine in the Los Angeles area. The massive police presence was the result of the killer targeting their own, thus leading to the reasonable conclusion that police pulled out the stops not because the public was in danger but because they were in danger. I don’t blame police for their efforts, but I also understand why residents in, say, South Los Angeles, wondered why killings in their community don’t rate the same attention.
With crime rates at 40-year lows, this is an opportune time for a debate about such police-priority issues free from excess emotionalism.
Media reports have focused on the rantings within Dorner’s manifesto. But a lot of it is about bureaucratic indifference—about police officials who, in his mind, didn’t care about the communities they are sworn to protect. Nothing justifies such violence and I’m sickened by people who are celebrating Dorner, but even the LAPD is re-opening the case of Dorner’s firing. Perhaps the department will try to glean some broader lessons from this tragedy.
Currently, a case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is evaluating the lengths to which police are required to go to protect innocent bystanders. The case involves Sacramento police who were trailing a suspect who had run from his car and then hid in a tree in a family’s backyard. A police helicopter spotted him. So an officer released a police dog into the yard even though people were having a gathering in the backyard.
Police dogs are trained to bite and hold suspects, but they can’t distinguish between law-abiding citizens relaxing with friends and police suspects. So Bandit attacked the first person it saw. Instead of instituting reform and settling with the family, Sacramento Police Department has been arguing that “officer safety” would be endangered by requiring a reasonable warning before releasing a vicious dog on private property.
It’s frightening to think that police can use deadly force without taking even the most modest steps to protect innocent bystanders. It’s even more frightening to hear people defend this approach. Yes, officer safety is important. But so is the public’s safety. It’s time to grapple with the proper balance.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org