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.
But Chief Beck was surely aware that a harsh punishment would have been poorly received by his cops, most of whom would admit, if only to themselves, that they may have been just as likely to fire on the two women as those who actually did. Indeed, there were those within the LAPD who said that the shooting, though clearly mistaken, was forgivable under the unique conditions that prevailed during the Dorner manhunt. Consider: Just hours before the shooting in Torrance, Dorner had killed a police officer and wounded others. Sometime later, a motorist on a Los Angeles freeway called 911 to report that a truck resembling Dorner’s was driving erratically, and that it was last seen taking a freeway exit that might lead to the South Bay and Torrance. Add to this the officers’ lack of training and preparation for the assignment and the flurry of unofficial news and rumors that officers across the department were sharing among themselves via cell phone and you have a recipe for trouble, which of course is precisely what occurred.
So, how did Chief Beck resolve the question? This month he sent a letter to the police commission, the civilian panel that oversees the LAPD, in which he made the case that the involved officers had violated policy when they fired on the two women. The chief thus stated that the officers would be subject to discipline, which news reports say will be minor. In taking this action the chief acknowledged that the officers were clearly in the wrong in that they failed to identify their target before firing, but that under the circumstances the mistake did not warrant termination, demotion, or a suspension.
In evaluating the actions of the seven officers and one sergeant who fired on the women, the chief in his letter said that officers “with similar training and experience would not have reasonably identified an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury based on the same facts and circumstances, even in consideration of the misidentification of the truck and prior knowledge of the threat Dorner posed.”
I see this as apt only as to the first officer who fired, on whose head much of what followed must rest. Every cop who works morning watch, as the overnight or graveyard shift is called in the LAPD, knows the experience of chasing the tail lights of the newspaper delivery vehicles that careen this way and that in the pre-dawn hours, and this officer should have been aware that at that hour he would likely have encountered such a vehicle. It’s easy to identify the problem now, but the officers and the women they shot would have benefited from the knowledge that at around 5:30 a.m. the women would be delivering their papers on the captain’s street in a crew-cab pickup truck.
As for the rest of the officers, in my view they are less culpable. They responded to the first officer’s gunfire, believing it to be coming from Dorner, and seeing a truck resembling Dorner’s coming down the street toward the captain’s house, they began shooting. The chief criticized some of them for what he perceived as an excessive number of rounds fired, but remember that Dorner was thought to be heavily armed and possibly wearing body armor. These officers, mistakenly but not unreasonably, believed it was Dorner they were shooting at. I doubt if I, under the same circumstances, would have been so disciplined as not to empty at least one magazine.
The involved officers will soon return to field duties, this after receiving the sort of training they should have gotten before being sent on such an assignment. Margie Carranza and Emma Hernandez have their $4.2 million and presumably are no longer delivering newspapers. And Christopher Dorner is dead, sparing us all the circus that would have been his criminal trial. There is much to lament in the Dorner story, but little in these outcomes. May Dorner be the last of his kind.