How the LAPD is slowly getting it right

Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck gives a briefing on the Christopher Dorner case on Feb. 7.
(Image credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

As an Angeleno, I find the Christopher Dorner hero worship is obnoxious and predictable. Whatever your opinions on the subject of a police state, on the LAPD in general, on harassment of minorities by the cops — you do yourself no favors when you conflate mad murderers with moral martyrs. The guy killed the daughter of someone he didn't like. I'm not sure his admirers deal with that cognitive dissonance. Dorner's manifesto is at best a conflation of legitimate complaints with an unfocused call to rebellion; at worst, it is a post-facto self-rationalization for his own inability to keep his job. Laudably, the chief of the LAPD, Charlie Beck, wants to know which it is, and he's re-opened the investigation into why Dorner was fired.

But here's what gets me.

First, the Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. County Sheriff's Departments and the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and the San Bernadino Sheriff's Department are different organizations. They have different cultures and different rules and different histories.

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The LAPD, in particular, is not the police agency it was. The riots after Rodney King's arrest and beating reoriented the city government. Critics were brought in to the department as civilian overseers. Imperious police chiefs and their deputies found themselves term-limited. The Rampart scandal, in 2000, reoriented the entire department. Many, many, many bad police officers were forced out. Less than half of the LAPD is now white; the ranks of minority supervisors are growing.

It is hard to find a major community group in L.A. that does not concede that the basic, street-level interaction between police officers and citizens of all ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations has gotten much warmer, friendlier, and effective, even as they understandably point out exceptions. The federal government, which had a hand in running the department after the Rampart scandal, kept a close watch on the department. William Bratton imported new police techniques from New York City and did more than any other chief to improve policing skills and human factor skills.

The community activists who made this happen are the ones who are done the most disservice by Dorner's sympathizers.

The LAPD is by no means a perfect police department. But it's a much, much better one than it was. It is not the department that ought to, in the words of a Columbia professor, spur a conversation about police brutality. That conversation is worth having, but the LAPD is one police agency that is trying to get it right. Perfect? Never. Good enough. No. But the caricature of a broken and brutal police department it is not. It's going in the opposite direction.

Maybe the LAPD's history consigns it to the perception that it's still the LAPD of yesteryear. Until fairly recently, the LAPD story was romantic and villainous, ugly and heroic at the same time: unbelievable detective work, technological advancements (like air patrols), Gangster squads, racism and white supremacy, supercops, tangled webs of corruption — and now, major reform.

Those who seek to justify why Christopher Dorner's complaints resonate should instead focus on how the LAPD is transforming itself, and how to export those transformations elsewhere.

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Marc Ambinder

Marc Ambinder is's editor-at-large. He is the author, with D.B. Grady, of The Command and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Marc is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic and GQ. Formerly, he served as White House correspondent for National Journal, chief political consultant for CBS News, and politics editor at The Atlantic. Marc is a 2001 graduate of Harvard. He is married to Michael Park, a corporate strategy consultant, and lives in Los Angeles.