On Christopher Dorner, and Straddling The Thin Blue Line
I read every sentence of Christopher Dorner's manifesto.
Beginning to end.
I read it, and I sat with it, and my stomach turned with anxiety for all of the men and women who had to fear him.
I read it, and I said to myself....."Yep. Pretty much sums it up."
I used to work for one of the most urban police departments in the country. Dorner may have been an angry psychopath, but I have no doubt that the secrets that he decided to share with our country last week were true.
Nov. 17, 2011 - Los Angeles, CA, USA. LAPD keep control of a crowd of about 800 plus Occupy protesters took to the streets (Credit Image: © Gene Blevins/Los Angeles Daily News/ZUMAPRESS.com)
I was raised to respect the police. I am white, upper middle-class, and frequently fearful of doing something wrong. Of getting "in trouble". I will never forget being seven years old and yelling from the backseat of our car "Look Mom....the pigs are driving by!". My mom stopped our old volvo in the middle of the road, and swung around in her seat. "We do NOT use that word in our family." she said. I had never seen her eyes so angry. "The police are here to protect us. We do NOT disrespect them that way." It was a mistake that I never made again.
In my early 20's, my desire to "help people" led me to a tiny community that housed a shelter for women and children who had been abused. I performed "curbside social work", meeting moms on the playground, helping them find food banks and free healthcare. hey taught me about the power of motherhood, and how it was possible to raise a child with nothing but love to sustain them. The 20-something me worked from noon to 10 pm, all alone in the dark night, with only foolish pride and cheerful naivete standing between me and a steady infiltration of drugs, gangs, and predators. I learned more about socioeconomics, white privilege, feminism, and change-making from my strong, spirited clients, then in any college classroom. I loved every minute of that job. I was never afraid. But I also knew that I had back-up. There was a police officer who had been assigned to the small rows of apartment buildings where my clients lived, and he was "neighborhood policing" at its finest.
I had never met a police officer like this man. I had never met a man like this police officer. Kind. Soft-spoken. Gentle with my littlest clients, and with a dark sense of humor that disarmed my most angry grown-up clients. He wrote condolence notes to citizens who had lost loved ones in car accidents. He showed up. Every night. He was fair, and he was thorough, and he didn't flinch when the "naked lady" upstairs overdosed one too many times, and we had to walk into her smoke-filled room to make sure she wasn't dead.
So when I was offered a position with a neighboring police force, I jumped at the opportunity. I already had tremendous respect for what the police did. For the sacrifices they made for us. For the power that accompanied a shiny badge and confident gait. I said yes. I knew that it was an old boys club. And I was ready for an adventure. I was a "change-maker". Over-confident, and blessed with a naive blend of courage and stupidity.
What I saw in that urban police department would change my life. It would change my life, and end my career, all in one divisive swoop. Not all police officers were like the one who stood next to me in that tiny apartment. Heroes are not always the men that you expect them to be.
I was young. I was pretty. I was a civilian employee, brought into the Special Victims Unit to do "social work". On the totem pole of police officers, I was hanging out at the very bottom....in 4-inch heels. I was on the secret side of the thin blue line, but I hadn't earned my stripes yet.
What I saw in one short year, was nothing short of extraordinary. Men (and they were mostly men), tasked with keeping the rest of us safe. Not just the pretty girls. But the drug dealers. The 19-year-old gangsters. The women who called 911 to report domestic violence, only to try to beat the shit out of the police officers who arrived. I saw mothers lose their children, and children bury their mothers, and through it all these officers jumped in their patrol cars every.damn.day and drove off to save their souls. It has been said that firefighters get all the glory. When they drive down the street, sirens blaring, people are always thrilled to see them. But when cops come rushing to the scene, everyone runs the other direction.
Police work goes against human nature. Police officers bear witness to the things that we only see in movies. Death, torture, accidents....the things that nightmares are made of. They are asked to stay composed. To never show fear. To show up. To do right. To stand down. But the most important task they have, is to come home every night. To come back. To survive. For their families, and most importantly, their children.
These men (and they are mostly men) are human beings. Flawed, real, human beings.& Underneath their badges you will find Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Secondary Trauma. Anxiety. Nightmares. Anger. And a whole host of other things that they will never admit to, but will suffer from in silence. City councils chip away at a department's headcount, asking them to do more, with less. Communities carry guns and kill children in urban streets, and yet the police are blamed when they react to a threat. Officers work long hours, over holiday weekends and in the dead of night. They entertain themselves with rituals and traditions that they think will never see the light of day, and they attach to each other like packs of wolves, fighting for survival. It is this isolation, this "group think" mentality, this drive for survival in the midst of unspeakable horror, that often leads them astray. Not everything stays within the walls of a line-up room. Not every secret can be kept.
Being tasked with solving a community's problems takes its toll on the human psyche. And police officers sometimes fail. Their own truths become exposed. They are human. And sometimes, they are wrong.
I was on the "right" side of the law when I worked in a musty high-rise building, my pencil skirt and crisp pinstriped shirt surrounded by rows of blue uniforms. I was naive enough to not understand the rules of the game. They let their guard down with me. They let me in to a world that ultimately let me down. They treated me like "one of the boys". I was on the right side of the line, and then I saw just how wrong that side was. I experienced things that weren't right. I spoke up. I lost my job.
You don't cross the blue line. You will fall down a rabbit hole where nothing is as it seems. You don't talk about what you see. You don't tell the secrets that were born from good intentions, even when you witness everything falling apart. And when you do, there is no going back. I will never work in a police department again. And Christopher Dorner knew that he wouldn't, either.
Christopher Dorner was not a hero. He was not a martyr. He should not be cheered on the steps of the LAPD, by angry citizens who don't trust the ones who are tasked with protecting them. I know what it looks like to sit next to a police officer at 7 pm, as he calls home to say goodnight to his children. That same police officer contributed to the end of my career. I hated him, and I respected him, and I feared him, all at the same time. The blue line is funny like that. Blurring the line between heroes and renegades, saviors and perpetrators. Dorner isn't the only cop who was capable of hurting people, but he's the only one who took it that far.
Christopher Dorner was an angry, deranged psychopath. But he might have spoken the truth about what he saw.
Can we hold both? As citizens, can we believe that the police are the only ones who can save us, and still hold them accountable for their behavior? Flawed and fearless, full of hope and courage, yet capable of hiding battle secrets too sacred and disgusting to share?
I was terrified to write this down. Terrified to tell my tiny piece of a larger story, to add a fragile thread to the intricate web that law enforcement weaves. I've struggled for 10 years to hold both, the anger and the desire for justice in one trembling hand, the gratitude and the reverence in the other. The thin blue line is worn, scratched by the boot marks of history. But it is unfailing, and you best be on the right side when the truth comes out. May god bless the families of the sons and daughters who were killed last week, and may we all seek to find peace in transparency and truth.
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