A homicidal maniac blames racism in the Los Angeles Police Department for his killing rampage against cops and civilians and the New York Times responds, “You know, he just may have a point.” On Monday, as fired LAPD cop Christopher Dorner eluded capture for the sixth day after killing a Riverside Police Department officer, the daughter of his departmental defense attorney, and her fiancé, the Times wrapped up three days of observations about racism in the LAPD in response to Dorner’s charge, in a lunatic manifesto, that the department was endemically biased and brutal. (Dorner may have burned to death in a cabin in the San Bernadino mountains after a shootout that killed another law enforcement officer.)
The Times’s lead story in its national news section on Saturday was headlined: SHOOTING SUSPECT’S RACISM ALLEGATIONS RESOUND FOR SOME. Reporter Adam Nagourney opened his story with the LAPD’s denial of Dorner’s charges. “For the Los Angeles Police Department,” wrote Nagourney, Dorner’s accusations are “the words of a delusional man, detached from the reality of the huge improvements the force has undergone over the years.” Nagourney didn’t put the LAPD’s position in irony-signaling scare quotes, but the reader knew what was coming next: after the departmental spin, now the reality. “Yet for whatever changes the department has undergone since the days when it was notorious as an outpost of rampant racism and corruption,” continued Nagourney, “the accusations by the suspect—however disjointed and unhinged—have struck a chord. They are a reminder, many black leaders said, that some problems remain and, no less significant, that memories of abuses and mistreatment remain strong in many parts of this city.”
Nagourney makes no effort to document what those alleged “problems” are. In fact, he provides not one instance of police misconduct. Instead, he simply rounds up the usual suspects, always good for a quote about the long shadow of racism in the LAPD. “It would be naïve and misguided to say that racism in any institution is entirely a thing of the past,” UC Irvine law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky told the Times, after conceding that the department had changed. Nagourney also quotes certain members of the “community,” such as Hodari Sababu, a 56-year-old tour guide: “In your community, the police is there to protect and serve; in my community, the police are there to harass and to insult and to kill if they get a chance.” A 54-year-old bus driver explains: “Black people feel like we’ve been targets for so long, we’ve always felt that the L.A.P.D. was corrupt. So for us, it’s like, O.K., they pushed him over the edge.”
If the Times insists on giving any credence to the charges of a murderous madman—whose manifesto lists, among its “high value targets,” former LAPD chief William Bratton; current chief Charles Beck; their spouses and children; Caucasian, Hispanic, lesbian, and Asian officers; and black LAPD supervisors—here’s what it could have asked with regards to the Dorner case: Is there any evidence that Dorner’s firing was the product of bias? The LAPD fired Dorner in 2009 after a disciplinary panel found that he had falsely accused his training sergeant of kicking a homeless man during an arrest; his credibility, said the board’s chairman, was “damaged beyond repair.” Three witnesses testified that they did not see the sergeant kick the man. If Dorner was fired because of racism, presumably other black officers would have been unfairly treated as well. Where are they? Or did the department’s disciplinary apparatus erupt in bias in just this one case, and if so, why? Dorner had full opportunity to press his case: after his dismissal, he sued the department for wrongful termination. He lost at trial and again on appeal. The idea that bigotry or a lack of integrity tainted each of those fora strains credulity.
Instead of merely recycling left-over tropes about the big, bad LAPD from his paper’s celebratory coverage of the Rodney King riots’ twentieth anniversary, Nagourney could have reported on the department’s unparalleled transparency and openness to the public and the press. For a good part of a decade, the LAPD lived under the yoke of a gratuitous federal civil rights consent decree, spending hundreds of millions complying with its insanely burdensome paperwork requirements. The decree was lifted in 2008, when a federal judge belatedly declared the department in compliance with its constitutional obligations. Since then, the department continues to bend over backward to investigate even the most patently false allegations of racial profiling or anything else related to race; an entire squad of detectives tries to substantiate every civilian complaint that comes before it, no matter how preposterous; an inspector general then looks for any further possibilities of upholding the complaint. Nagourney could have spoken to some black cops or black commanders, such as assistant chief Earl Paysinger, who oversees the department’s 7,000 patrol and detective officers. Two of the department’s last four chiefs have been black (not that skin color has anything to do with a predilection toward bias, except, of course, in the Times’s world); did they sanction racism in their department? How about riding with some cops in the city’s gang-ridden areas to see how they deal with suspects and law-abiding residents? (Nagourney does reference improvements in public opinion of the department and a decrease in the number of white officers as “evidence” of change since the days of Chief William Parker, but such a generalized statement does not outweigh the impression left by his man-on-the-street reporting.)
The reality is this: few police departments today are more “progressive” than the LAPD in their internal affairs or their continuous outreach to blacks and every other self-defined victim group.
The Times routinely lards its police stories with anti-cop quotes but almost never finds someone with anything positive to say about the police, though such people are out there to be found. In the Times’s universe, a black person with negative attitudes toward the police enjoys a virtually indefeasible presumption of authority. The possibility of anti-cop bias doesn’t exist for the paper; the only bias it recognizes is against certain minorities. Nor does it seem to occur to its reporters and editors that some of its anti-cop sources may have a grudge against the police for having been arrested or for the arrest of a family member or associate. The Times is willing to print outrageous statements like Sababu’s, but never asks: “Really? Do the police really go to black neighborhoods in order to ‘kill if they get a chance’?” Anyone with the slightest knowledge of how the LAPD has operated for the last decade and a half would recognize such statements as sheer fabrication—but if you’re going to print it, how about looking at what the LAPD’s civilian shooting rate is? In fact, it’s a fraction of what it was decades ago, and an infinitesimal number compared with black-on-black killings.
On Sunday, the Times was at it again: “The killings and Mr. Dorner’s online manifesto have reopened old wounds for some black residents here, even as they condemned the violence. For decades, the Los Angeles Police Department was known nationwide for racism and corruption. And memories are still fresh of the riots in 1992 that followed the beating of a black man, Rodney King, by white police officers. The beating was caught on videotape and broadcast around the country.” Yes, but what about now?
On Monday, the Times reiterated the charges of racism in the LAPD, in case we hadn’t gotten the point yet: “Late last week, Chief Beck said he believed that Mr. Dorner’s dismissal had been ‘thoroughly adjudicated’ and ‘reviewed at multiple levels.’ But that did little to quiet speculation in some quarters that the former officer had legitimate claims of racism.” Which “quarters” would they be, and why should they be given any credence?
In contrast with the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times has done valuable reporting on the Dorner rampage, giving a good overview of the false-witness case against him, his troubled history with the department, and his unstable mental condition. If it wasn’t clear enough already from Dorner’s evil slaughter and his monomaniacal, paranoid manifesto (which announces that the killing spree is undertaken to “clear [Dorner’s] name”), the Los Angeles Times’s reporting shows that his views about racism in the LAPD are not worth building a narrative around (the paper does say that his allegations have resonated with some who criticize the department’s disciplinary system as capricious and retaliatory). Appallingly, groups supporting Dorner’s homicidal spree have sprung up on the Internet. The New York Times’s reporting on this and other police cases does little to counter such terrifying hatred.