LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and the Dorner Killing Spree, One Year Later

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, Shakespeare tells us.  And while the worries heaped on the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department may not rival those that kept Henry IV awake into the small hours, it’s safe to say that, some nights, Chief Charlie Beck does a good bit of tossing and turning before drifting off.

A period of sleeplessness for Chief Beck came, as it did for police officers across Southern California, one year ago this month, when former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner went on a killing spree that targeted police officers and their families.  After being fired from the LAPD in 2008, Dorner nursed a grudge for more than four years before murdering Monica Quan, the daughter of Randy Quan, a former LAPD captain-turned-attorney who had represented Dorner in his termination proceedings.  Also killed was her fiancé, Keith Lawrence.

In writing about it now, it’s difficult to capture the atmosphere of trepidation that pervaded the LAPD when it was discovered that Dorner had written of his desire to take revenge for his firing on the parties whom he, in his diseased sense of morality, held responsible.  The department was all but paralyzed by the logistical demands of protecting all of the personnel determined to be at the greatest risk and their families.  Beyond that, officers’ nerves were frayed by the thought that Dorner, tutored as he was on how the LAPD operates, and armed as he was with who knew how large an arsenal, might turn up anywhere in the city or even at an officer’s home and claim his next victim.  He had written in his Facebook manifesto that he would extend his vengeance to the families of those with whom he held his grievance, and he showed himself to be true to this threat by selecting Monica Quan and even her fiancé as his first victims.

The nine-day manhunt for Dorner has been well documented, but I’ll summarize it by saying that before he was killed on Feb. 12 in a gunfight with San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies, he had ranged over thousands of square miles while murdering two police officers, wounding two others, and opening fire on several more.  In the early morning hours of Feb. 7, in the course of just twenty minutes, he fired on two LAPD officers, wounding one of them, then ambushed two officers from Riverside, Calif., killing one and wounding the other.

So it was in this atmosphere that LAPD officers, later in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 7, committed a blunder that mercifully was not fatal to two innocent women but well might have been, a blunder that brought the department under harsh criticism, some but not all of it deserved.  Patrol officers from the LAPD’s Hollywood Division were hastily assembled and sent to Torrance, Calif., in the South Bay section of Los Angeles County.  It was in Torrance where there lived an LAPD captain who, by virtue of his being a member of the trial board that voted to fire Dorner, was considered to be one of his priority targets.  The captain had in fact been specifically named in Dorner’s manifesto, and adding to the fraught atmosphere was the fact that someone believed to be Dorner had been seen at the captain’s house prior to the first two murders.

By now the story has been well told about how, at about 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 7, this group of LAPD officers opened fire on two women, Margie Carranza and Emma Hernandez, who were delivering newspapers in the neighborhood and whose truck bore a resemblance to Dorner’s.  Over 100 pistol and shotgun rounds were fired at the truck but, incredibly, neither woman was killed.  (Carranza and Hernandez later settled their lawsuit against the LAPD for a reported $4.2 million.)

The officers who fired on Carranza and Hernandez have remained in non-field assignments since the shooting, awaiting word on what if any discipline will be imposed.  There were, as when any controversy arises in the LAPD, calls for the officers to be fired and even imprisoned, calls that will surely be echoed in the comments to this piece as soon as it’s posted.  But to the more rational among us it was clear that under the circumstances some lesser form of punishment was called for.

And this is where Chief Beck came in for some more sleepless nights.  Yes, there were howls for the involved officers’ hides to be tacked to the wall.  How can a group of officers mistake two slightly built Hispanic women for Christopher Dorner, who was black and stocky?  A misjudgment of that enormity clearly demonstrated that the officers should not again be trusted with the authority and weaponry of a police officer.  Come down too easy on the officers and the chief would lose his credibility with the public.