LOS ANGELES — Police Chief Charlie Beck stood in front of a bank of television cameras Sunday afternoon facing what seemed like two impossible tasks: luring in a fugitive former police officer accused of three murders and simultaneously assuring the public that his department was not backsliding on accusations of racism and corruption.
For the last four days, dozens of law enforcement agencies across Southern California have been searching for Christopher Dorner, the former officer who posted a manifesto online promising revenge against Los Angeles police officers and claiming that racism had led to his firing. Beck said Sunday that the search for Dorner, who is wanted in connection with the killing of a former police captain’s daughter and her fiance and the shooting death of a police officer in Riverside, Calif., was “by far the largest manhunt in the history of the L.A. region."
Beck spoke with visible emotion of the toll the threats were taking on officers.
“I think all of us in law enforcement accept a level of risk when we become police officers. But none of us accept that level of risk for our families, believe me," Beck said during a news conference where he announced a $1 million reward for information that leads to the arrest of Dorner.
At the same time, he said he was eager to protect the reputation of a department that he had worked painstakingly to repair over the last several years. On Saturday, Beck said he would review the investigation of the 2007 episode that led to Dorner’s dismissal. He was fired in 2008 for giving false statements after he accused his training officer of kicking a suspect.
“I hear that people think that maybe there is something to what he says, and I want to put that to rest," he said. “The only way I know how to put that to rest is to review what has already been reviewed at multiple levels. But it has never been reviewed by me."
Though many say the Los Angeles Police Department has radically transformed over the last two decades, Dorner’s letter has renewed talk about the department’s history of problems in dealing with African-Americans and in investigating charges of racism in its ranks.
“When I read that manifesto, my heart sank," said Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer who represented police officers who faced retaliation after reporting racial problems and who has worked closely with the department to institute reforms. “Anything that threatens to undo what we’ve worked so hard for can mean a real crisis. They need to show that this isn’t the old LAPD circling the wagons and manning the ramparts but instead going to look to see if any mistakes were made."
It was still unclear exactly how the department would investigate Dorner’s claims, but Rice and others said someone outside the police force should lead the inquiry.
“I still don’t trust internal affairs," Rice said.
Late last week, Beck said he believed the 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.
The mistrust of the police deepened for some after two officers mistakenly shot two Latina women, a 71-year-old and her 47-year-old daughter delivering newspapers in a truck that officers thought matched the description of Dorner’s vehicle.
“That’s the undercurrent you have — that police were in such a rush to kill him they shot two Latina women who resemble nothing like a 6-foot-2-inch black man," said Najee Ali, the executive director of Project Islamic Hope, who has been a frequent critic of the department. “That was a game changer for those who had just been casually watching and waiting for this to unfold — it gave the notion that they are out to get people credibility."
But in some way, Ali said, the chief’s decision lends more credence to Dorner’s claims, which are just one part of his eight-page screed that also criticizes Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association and praises the actor Charlie Sheen. (Sheen posted a video on the Internet over the weekend asking Dorner to call him so they could “figure out together how to end this thing.")
“They’re turning him into some kind of a folk hero," Ali said. “It gives people a context to view him as a man wrongly vilified by the system. If Beck is caving to political pressure, I’m not sure what it gets anyone — it’s not as though he is going to get his job back."
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who hosts a radio talk show here, said he heard from dozens of listeners who saw a pattern in what Dorner described.
“Given the history of the LAPD and the fact that there are so many people who have problems, there was going to be a huge backlash," Hutchinson said. “There was going to be so much public clamor that Beck knew he had to get in front of it. Even the fact that they are willing to walk it back and look into it is going to be persuasive."
John Mack, the vice president of the police commission who frequently criticized the police in the past, said it was important that the department not become complacent and assume that the right actions are taken at every level.
“We have to keep our eye on the ball and challenge the system," he said. But he dismissed any concern that a renewed investigation would encourage others who have been dismissed to take similar actions. “We need to be clear this in no way even implies that there was any justification to Dornan’s actions."
Whether an investigation will lead to any new discoveries about Dorner is impossible to know. But Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seemingly acknowledged that the authorities wanted him to know that they were looking into his claims.
“This is a man that’s been preparing what he’s doing for a long time now, it seems as long as 2009," the mayor said. “You can bet, if he’s still alive, that he’s watching this newscast. That he’s reviewing every single article that’s written on this."