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Rethinking the Legacy of Christopher Dorner, the Cop-Killing Cop

Dorner became infamous for a 2013 killing spree that ended in a fatal standoff. But seven years later, his message resonates louder than anyone could have expected.

Christopher Dorner died in a burning house full of smoke and the sour residue of tear gas, surrounded by hundreds of bullet holes and nobody on his side.  

Beyond the walls of the cabin were more than a hundred law enforcement officers, from multiple jurisdictions, all armed to the teeth. Neither Dorner nor the cops outside had capture in mind. The gunfight and standoff unfolded over the afternoon of February 12, 2013, in the snowy hills of Big Bear Lake, in the high mountains about two hours from L.A. Nobody knows how long Dorner survived in that fire, sparked by pyrotechnic grenades shot into the cabin. The autopsy only found that he died from a 9-millimeter bullet, shot out of his own Glock pistol. 

It was the same Glock that killed Monica Quan and her fiancé Keith Lawrence, and just one of numerous firearms used in Dorner’s mission to get revenge on police. The AR-15 rifle ditched in the basement, charred but with its suppressor intact, was used to kill sheriff’s deputy Jeremiah MacKay and Riverside PD officer Michael Crain. 

Over nine chaotic days in February 2013, Dorner captured the attention of the nation through bloodshed and ideology. His intentions were laid bare in a sprawling manifesto he posted to Facebook. He wanted to wage war against the police. He reveled in the fact that he knew LAPD’s tactics inside and out. Dorner was one of them — trained at the LAPD’s academy and former military, to boot. But in 2008, he was stripped of his badge when an internal investigation concluded he had lied in a complaint against his training officer, whom Dorner claimed had kicked a homeless man in a misuse of force. 

Booted from the LAPD, with his career as a reservist in the Navy in jeopardy because of the firing, Dorner began to fixate — on racism, on the violence of police, on his own victimhood. He was convinced he was being humiliated to prove a point about a Black man crossing the blue line. He obsessed over the connections between his former training officer and the cops who presided over his case, feeling sure there were conflicts of interest. He started planning revenge. 

“From 2/05 to 1/09 I saw some of the most vile things humans can inflict on others as a police officer in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the streets of L.A. It was in the confines of LAPD police stations and shops [cruisers]. The enemy combatants in L.A are not the citizens and suspects, it’s the police officers,” he wrote in his manifesto. “The attacks will stop when the department states the truth about my innocence, PUBLICLY!!! I will not accept any type of currency/goods in exchange for the attacks to stop, nor do I want it. I want my name back, period. There is no negotiation.”

Seven years later, amid an anti-police protest of unprecedented scope, people are starting to assess the legacy of Dorner again. The past decade has seen two other cop-killers like him: Micah Johnson, who ambushed and killed five officers in Dallas, and Gavin Long, who shot six cops, killing three people, in Louisiana. But Dorner preceded both, and his actual experience as a cop helped cement his final act as something more akin to murderous whistleblowing than just serial violence. 

In 2020, people want police stripped of their overreaching powers, and “all cops are bastards” is a common cry in the streets. In that light, Dorner is the man who went postal and lived out the daydream so many victims of police oppression and violence flirt with: the idea of killing cops and striking terror into them and their allies. To get some small reparation for all the times they walked home, looking over their shoulders, terrified to see red and blue lights. 

Some are comfortable outright celebrating Dorner as a hero. Others are using him as a protest image that captures a complex pain. Rap duo Run the Jewels references Dorner’s death in “Yankee and the Brave (ep. 4).” Punk group Ho99o9, meanwhile, is more literal in its musical dedication to him. 

Then there’s Dave Chappelle, who brings up the actions of Dorner, Johnson and Long in his new special, 8:46, in what appears to be a serious moment of reflection. He can’t shake the realization that three young black men, military-trained, all wound up at the same violent conclusion. “Why would they do that? Because they believe, just like they did when they were joining the fuckin’ military, that they were fighting acts of terror,” Chappelle concludes. 

The coverage of the Dorner manhunt in mainstream media didn’t work very hard to portray him as an allegory. Story after story positions him as a cunning, cold-blooded madman, on an endless mission to hunt cops, enraged by narcissism and victimhood that bloated over a lifetime. Media mentions of the manifesto often noted its rambling nature — Dorner talked about Charlie Sheen and Tony Bourdain, endorsed Hillary Clinton, declared Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” as the best record in history — but the stories didn’t linger long on his accusations of crooked cops protecting crooked cops and taking pleasure in beating citizens into submission, often literally. (LAPD Chief Charlie Beck described Dorner as an “injustice collector” obsessed with racism.)

And there were lots of accusations. It wasn’t just his complaint against his training officer and her kicking of a suspect. In the academy, he encountered officers who told him it was their right to say the N-word. He wrote that he was shunned for speaking up and getting into a fight over the incident. He connected the dots to his childhood living in neighborhoods dominated by white kids, who said the same slurs with the same smug certainty. 

Dorner wrote about nepotistic relationships between those assigned to fight misconduct and those accused of it. He detailed how people with long histories of violence against suspects and misconduct investigations ended up in leadership positions. He discussed the rank-and-file’s appetite for abusing the communities they patrolled, noting how a senior officer nicknamed “Chupacabra” flaunted her long use-of-force record and personal kink of drawing blood from arrestees. 

To many Americans witnessing the manhunt, these explanations didn’t seem like reality. It sounded like the desperate, unhinged cries of a man in need of an intervention. But seen in the shadow of Black Lives Matter and a police response that feels united in its brutality and tribalism against protesters, Dorner’s accusations don’t sound unhinged at all. To be perfectly clear, none of his claims justify the violence he sowed; the first two victims weren’t even cops, but innocent lives culled in order to hurt one. Nor do his arguments change the fact that he was a seething, lonely young man who needed help, not retribution. 

But the mass realization in 2020 that police cannot achieve peace proves that Dorner’s observations were clear and relevant all along. The rhetoric among experts, police chiefs and media talking heads in the aftermath of Dorner’s death was that, despite everything, things had gotten better since Rodney King’s beating at the hands of LAPD. We know now that all of the historic reform over the last 30 years didn’t do much to morph the toxic roots of every wrongful stop, conviction and killing by cops. Hell, Dorner proved his own damn point when two different sets of cops ended up shooting innocent people while in a panic over the manhunt. He proved the point a second time when law enforcement decided to burn down the cabin rather than find a different way to stop him in Big Bear.  

Again, Dorner is no Mumia Abu-Jamal, even if online fans point to his kind gestures toward innocent hostages as proof of something greater than circumstance. Dorner is a man who decided, wrongly, that killing was the only way to clear his name and shift the public’s opinion of police. But he is a fascinating page of the American fable, and a man who served as a symbolic canary in a coal mine — a vision of rage and revenge, overthrowing every assumption America made about the black cop

Dorner became a folk hero to some the moment he killed a cop, and a cautionary tale about anti-cop sentiment to others. His story is now woven into the tragic, gut-churning narrative of cop violence and cop killers in the U.S. Like so many tragic figures, Dorner eludes easy characterization. But our continued fascination with him isn’t rooted in simple cruelty or hatred. Renford Reese, a professor of political science at California State Polytechnic University, may have summed it up best in a BBC interview after the manhunt. 

“Of course he’s a murderer, of course he did wrong, of course we grieve for the families,” he said. “But he’s a product of our institutions — our education system, our military, our police. Somehow, all these things converged to create a monster.”