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After manhunt, L.A. police again have an image problem

LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck looks on during a news conference at the LAPD Headquarters in Los Angeles, California, February 10, 2013. REU
LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck looks on during a news conference at the LAPD Headquarters in Los Angeles, California, February 10, 2013. REU

By Brandon Lowrey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Los Angeles' police chief promised an investigation. City residents promised a protest.

At a recent town hall meeting, Charlie Beck vowed to uncover the truth behind former officer Christopher Dorner's charges of racism in his Los Angeles Police Department.

As Beck spoke, a flier circulated the mostly black audience. It bore Dorner's smiling face, belying the police's image of him as a ruthless killer.

"We the people demand independent investigation," read the fliers, which called for demonstrations, in a potent sign the Dorner case has stirred up what Beck has called "the ghosts of LAPD's past."

Dorner, who was black, posted a lengthy rant online alleging racism within the LAPD after he was named as a suspect in the killing of an officer's daughter and her fiance. Police said he then went on a shooting spree targeting police across Southern California, killing two more cops and wounding two others before the 9-day manhunt ended in a fiery siege at a ski cabin in the San Bernardino mountains on February 12.

Even before Dorner apparently killed himself while surrounded by law enforcement, his online manifesto had resonated in the largely black South Central section of the city, where the Watts riot erupted in 1965 and the Rodney King riot raged in 1992.

Dorner had been fired from the LAPD after an investigation found he falsely reported that a white superior officer beat a suspect. He vowed deadly revenge for his firing and charged that the police department had a deep-seated, institutional racism.

The handling of the Dorner manhunt has proven to be a test for Beck in the eyes of the black community. Beck said he was reviewing Dorner's firing and allegations against officers with the intent of "doing the right thing" and keeping the black community's faith in the department.

Dorner accused the department of failing to improve after the Rodney King case or the so-called Rampart scandal, a pattern of widespread corruption among rogue, anti-gang officers in the 1990s.

Although recent surveys have shown public opinion of the police improving in South Central Los Angeles, there remains a great deal of distrust, said Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor studying race and media at UCLA.

The discontent has little to do with Dorner, he said, but appears to be an affirmation of existing mistrust of the police department, as surfaced over the 1995 double murder trial of black football legend O.J. Simpson, acquitted when defense lawyers argued he was framed by police.

"It's never about the individual," Hunt said. "1992 wasn't really about Rodney King. He just happened to be the person who was caught on video tape. (The Simpson case) symbolized the idea that a police department might plant evidence to ensure that the person they think committed a crime gets prosecuted."

After Dorner's death, protesters held small rallies against the LAPD that some media reports described as "pro-Dorner" or "supporters of Dorner."

Najee Ali, 50, a longtime South Central activist and director of Project Islamic Hope who attended some of the rallies, called those labels inaccurate and disturbing. The protests sought police reform, he said.

"We don't agree with what Dorner did, but we believe what Dorner said," Ali said. "There are many African-American families in South Central Los Angeles that have either been the victims of police abuse or have a family member or a neighbor who has been a victim over the years. That's why what Dorner said resonated with the community so much."

Stanley Williford, 71, editor of Our Weekly, a publication devoted to covering the black communities surrounding South Los Angeles, ran an article last week that included interviews with several anonymous, black LAPD officers who said they believed what Dorner wrote and understood the frustration he felt.

"I don't think you can find more than a quarter of the black folks in the city who believe that the police department is not racist," Williford said. "People believe that (Dorner's rampage) came out of a kind of oppression that he didn't know how to deal with otherwise."

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Andrew Hay)

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