The massive manhunt for former police officer Christopher Jordan Dorner ended Tuesday in a hail of bullets and a wall of flame, as the mountain cabin he’d taken refuge in caught fire after being besieged by police. On Thursday, authorities confirmed that the body recovered from the wreckage was Dorner’s. “The charred human remains located in the burned out cabin in Seven Oaks have been positively identified to be that of Christopher Dorner,” the San Bernardino County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office said in a written statement, according to ABC News. “During the autopsy, positive identification was made through dental examination.”
Dorner is suspected of killing a total of four people, including a Riverside, Calif., police officer, a San Bernardino sheriff’s deputy and the daughter of a former police captain, all part of a one-man war against the Los Angeles Police Department over what he called the force’s “lying, racism” and “cover-ups.” But while Dorner’s rampage is over, his actions could continue to have repercussions — particularly for the LAPD, as his vendetta has stirred up old animosities between the department and the community it serves.
The claims made by Dorner were bold, to say the least: in a rambling, 6,000-word manifesto published on his Facebook page, the former officer complained that he had been discriminated against and effectively driven out of the department after accusing a fellow officer of kicking a suspect in the face. Issues of race and police brutality are particularly sensitive ones in Los Angeles. After all, this is the city where the videotaped police beating of black motorist Rodney King — and the subsequent acquittal of the officers involved — sparked race riots in 1992. The department was also embroiled in a rash of corruption charges and civil rights violations known as the Rampart scandal in the late 1990s and early 2000s; eventually an independent monitor was set up by the LAPD and the federal government to guide and enforce reforms. “The department has not changed since the Rampart and Rodney King days,” Dorner claimed in his manifesto. “It has gotten worse.”
Those words, and the actions that followed, poured salt into wounds that hadn’t completely healed in the black community in L.A., and they have already caused damage to the department’s reputation in the past week, says Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who has sued the LAPD for misconduct and racial discrimination on behalf of minority officers. The force has a long history of mistreating black officers, Rice claims; it wasn’t until the early 1960s, she says, that it ended the forced segregation of squad cars. Now the Dorner accusations have “revived the ghosts” of the LAPD’s past, she says, adding, “This is on such a massive scale in terms of its impact, I’m quite sure there’s been damage.”
Callers on talk radio popular in the African-American community in Los Angeles have been calling Dorner a hero, even proclaiming he was seeking vengeance for slavery, Rice says. A Facebook page called We Stand With Christopher Dorner has attracted more than 22,000 followers.
Dorner’s supporters seem to have interpreted his manifesto not as the rants of a lunatic but as the plea of a man legitimately upset about racial injustice. “The way he responded to discrimination is not the correct way,” says Donald Tibbs, a law professor at Drexel University who studies race and civil rights. “At the same time, his accusations seem to take us back and remind us of the days of old — maybe they’re not so old.”
In an apparent bid to counter this resentment, LAPD chief Charlie Beck announced on Feb. 9 that he had reopened the department’s investigation into Dorner’s dismissal. “As hard as it has been to change the culture of the Los Angeles Police Department, it has been even more difficult to win and maintain the support of the public,” Beck said. “Therefore, I feel we need to also publicly address Dorner’s allegations.” He took this step not “to appease a murderer,” he added, but “to reassure the public that their police department is transparent and fair in all the things we do.” And even though Dorner has been confirmed dead, the department says it will continue to pursue the investigation.
The inquest is being taken as a signal that despite Dorner’s claims, the department is trying to put its bad old days behind it. Even Rice agrees that the institutional racism that once plagued the LAPD is largely a thing of the past. “The old culture, in which the top command, from the chief all the way down to the lowest officer, condoned and approved of open racism — that LAPD is gone,” she says. Los Angeles now has a “majority of color” police force, Rice notes, that “seeks the trust of the poor black and poor Latino communities.” Ron Ryan, a retired veteran LAPD sergeant who was active during the King era, agrees that the force has come a long way. “They’ve improved in an all-around sense,” he says.
And while the police manhunt for Dorner wasn’t entirely smooth — two innocent bystanders were shot and injured by police after being mistaken for the fugitive ex-cop — at least it was successful. The huge task force assembled was effective in coordinating a multitude of agencies, some of which aren’t usually involved in such operations, says Lieutenant Patrick Foy, spokesman for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “All these resources we’re putting in help everybody work better together,” says Foy, whose fellow wardens chased Dorner and dodged his gunfire on Tuesday.
The LAPD itself, mired in the Dorner investigation, wasn’t eager to answer questions about the possibility of a tarnished image and didn’t respond to TIME’s queries as of this writing. But in the end, even those who may have sympathized with Dorner’s message likely have little love for his methods. His explicit threats against the families and children of his former colleagues may ultimately garner the LAPD more friends than enemies, says William Deverell, a history professor at the University of Southern California. “The notion of targeting the family members of officers, that’s just so heinous,” Deverell says. “I can’t imagine it wouldn’t help spark some support for officers and families of the institution.”