When a young couple sitting in their car was shot to death in the quiet upscale suburb of Irvine, CA in early February 2013, local police were jolted by a nearly unprecedented murder. It had all the earmarks of a gangland “hit” – and there was little evidence to determine who was behind the killing or what the motive might be.
Over the next ten days, the shocking whodunit facing Irvine police grew into a terrifying experience for all Southern California law enforcement personnel and their families, as online threats by a rogue former LAPD officer were followed by lightning bolt attacks that killed one officer and wounded three others in different cities within an hour. By the time Christopher Dorner was cornered and ultimately took his own life, he had shot another officer to death and had seriously wounded one more.
The police response and manhunt for Dorner became a two-week national event that involved thousands of officers across Southern California. It included many scenes of intense bravery and selflessness by the officers involved. Moreover, it was solved in a surprisingly short time by the combined professionalism and police expertise of departments ranging from San Bernardino County on the east to National City in San Diego County in the south.
Following the narrative of the incident from beginning to end reveals how quickly events moved. It was barely 12 hours from the discovery of the Facebook posting that convinced police Dorner was a prime suspect until the fatal attack on the Riverside Police Department officers. In that short time, the LAPD managed the herculean task of locating, assigning, and dispatching hundreds of officers to protect dozens of families throughout Southern California. Nothing similar had ever been done before, and the LAPD was universally praised for accomplishing it with minimal disruption to the department’s day-to-day responsibilities.
However, the review also revealed the problems still faced by policing a region of 10 counties and dozens of cities and towns, which are growing increasingly into one homogenous population of 22 million people. In some ways, Dorner was an anomaly – a well-armed attacker who knew police tactics. But police chiefs and county sheriffs involved in the incident agree that a small force of knowledgeable terrorists bent on creating havoc could easily replicate such attacks.
Everyone who lived through the attacks knows such things can happen again.
Each department has meticulously analyzed its own response. The chiefs and sheriffs involved believed it would be useful to have a unified report on the successes and challenges created by the interaction of so many law enforcement agencies.
With the strong support of San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon, the Police Foundation assembled a team of law enforcement leaders to review the response from a regional perspective. The team spent hundreds of hours interviewing personnel, reviewing evidence, and visiting crime scenes to prepare a report that lays out the challenges faced and provides a foundation for the region’s police leaders to resolve them for future incidents.
This report attempts, for the first time, to give a regional view of the police response from their perspective, and outlines particular challenges that were revealed.
Among the key findings:
- The LAPD, the nation’s third-largest police force, had to mobilize within a few hours on February 6, 2013 to protect dozens of threatened officers and their families – nearly all of whom lived outside the city limits. The challenges presented by this effort revealed that the Los Angeles Police Department has become a regional agency that has influence far beyond its jurisdictional boundaries.
- Regional communication problems among police departments throughout Southern California – long a source of concern in both natural disaster and potential terrorist scenarios – posed a potential danger to both the public and officers in the ten days surrounding the manhunt for Dorner.
- The need for a rapid and effective communication system within the Southern California Region was underscored when its absence left two officers following an extremely dangerous suspect with only cell phones to call in their location or status to local police.
- Command and control problems led to hundreds of officers converging on the scene of an active shooting, most with no understanding of what their role would be or how to interact with the command structure at the scene. Other problems resulted from officers within the same department self-deploying in conflicting and potentially dangerous ways.
- Many officers received their information from television and the Internet, leaving departments unable to keep up with the instantaneous availability of information.
- Efforts to create a regional command center helped organize a nationwide manhunt and sort through thousands of tips. But varying levels of participation by agencies hindered the construction of a unified response.
- The inevitable tension between investigators preparing evidence for a possible trial, and teams involved in an active manhunt, was amplified by the lack of early collaboration between departments. While top managers worked quickly to resolve these issues, gatekeepers at a variety of supervisory levels hampered the flow of information, concerns, and command decisions.
- Dealing with the impact of external sources of “social media,” especially Facebook and online discussions, involved many hours of effort that was a distraction and in many cases caused delays or misrepresentations that hindered how police viewed the case and how it could be resolved.
Overwhelmingly, the Police Foundation team found that the officers and deputies involved in the response to the Dorner incident felt that they were under attack. They were even more concerned about threats against their families – to the extent that many who were not even directly involved took pains to “clear” their own residences before they allowed their family members inside. They were frustrated and angered by some media reports and Internet campaigns that portray Dorner as a victim and a vigilante trying to right a wrong. Police point out that Dorner killed two unknowing victims with chilling ruthlessness, and killed two police officers in ambushes.
While the attacks were portrayed as only being directed toward police, the disruption they caused put an entire region at risk. Many have pointed out similarities in these events to those of the Beltway Sniper incidents around Washington, D.C., in which mystery shooters killed 10 people over three weeks in 2002, leaving the entire region in turmoil.
Law enforcement leaders know that it is vital to prepare for the possible repeat of these kinds of regional attacks by a terrorist group whose goal may be to distract law enforcement from its real objectives.
It is hoped that the findings in this report will provide a starting point for those discussions and planning efforts.