logo for print

What have we learned from the Dorner incident?

I want to host an online discussion which focuses on the following question: What are police agencies, trainers, and individual officers doing differently one year after Dorner?

One year ago today (February 7, 2013), cops across California were on a manhunt of nearly unprecedented scale after a suspect ambushed police officers in two separate attacks.

Riverside (Calif.) Police Officer Michael Crain was murdered and his partner, Andrew Tachias, was severely injured when the suspect fired on them as they sat in their squad car, stopped at a red light.

Only a half hour before the attack in Riverside, the suspect had fired on two LAPD officers, injuring one with a graze wound to his head which was “inches from killing him,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said at the time. Just days prior (on February 3), the same suspect had killed 28-year-old Monica Quan — the daughter of a retired LAPD officer — and her fiancé, 27-year-old Keith Lawrence.

One Year After Dorner
Before ultimately killing himself (with a single gunshot to the head) as a cabin in the woods burned to the ground around him, the suspect would ambush and kill San Bernardino Sheriff’s Deputy Jeremiah MacKay.

I am, of course, talking about Christopher Jordan Dorner, the disgraced and dismissed ex-LAPD police officer who vowed to “bring unconventional and asymmetrical warfare to those in LAPD uniform whether on or off duty.”

Today, at the halfway mark of anniversary of the 10-day Dorner incident, I want to host an online discussion in this space which focuses on the following question:

What are police agencies, trainers, and individual officers doing differently one year after Dorner?

I posed this question to four of my PoliceOne Contributors — Ron Avery, Fred Leland, Joel Shults, and Lance Eldridge — whose responses are below.

I hope you will add your own thoughts on this in the comments area below

Ron Avery, PoliceOne Columnist: Immediate Action Plans
What I’m seeing is a fundamental shift in the mindset of individual officers. They now realize — in a very personal way — how vulnerable they are and are taking steps to prepare. I see a much harder mindset in many officers. Many are seeking additional training, preparing their families and loved ones, paying for additional gear and security measures, and above all, becoming more tuned into having immediate action plans of what to do in a situation like that. Dorner was a wake-up call to what a determined bad guy could do.

Fred Leland, PoliceOne Contributor: From Newhall to Dorner
Four decades before Dorner, we declared that the Newhall incident had taught us many lessons. Or had it? The Newhall incident was the catalyst for officer survival training and supposedly a new respect for the adversary. We ‘learned’ that criminals are not all poorly trained and not all police are ‘well-trained professionals.’

One year after Dormer — and 40 plus years after Newhall — we have to ask ourselves, are we really better trained than our adversaries? Has law enforcement actually become more effective than the criminals who would do us — or the citizenry we protect — harm? Has the training we implemented over the last 40 years made better decision makers of street cops? 

My answer is no. Certainly, there are exceptions but overall I think that as a profession we have failed, and this troubles me greatly. The optimist in me hopes we will learn and change, but the realist in me — based on 28 years’ experience — says all but the very best will slide back into complacency. Look at it this way, the CHP turned the word “Newhall” into an acronym for officer safety.

Never approach a danger situation until you are adequately prepared and supported.  
Evaluate the offense and determine if you might just be dealing with something more dangerous than it looks. 
Wait for backup.
Have a plan (in other words, don’t just wade into a situation without planning every move). 
Always maintain the advantage over the opponent.
Look for the unusual.
Leave the scene when in doubt.

Most cops on the street could recite the lessons learned from Newhall, but how many are really applying those lessons on the street? In my view, too many agencies have settled for adequacy in individual and small-team skills — we can do better. Will the Dormer case bring meaningful and lasting change to how we operate? I sure as hell hope it does!

Joel Shults, PoliceOne Columnist: An Extreme on the Continuum
As with all rare and high-profile events, it seems like we have to do something. Upon cool reflection we’re struck by how seldom a well-trained former police officer or military veteran goes on the warpath, particularly targeting their own. 

I don’t think Dorner’s case was a tip of any iceberg of intentional blue-on-blue homicide, although he may represent an extreme on the continuum of officers needing preventive mental health care. The greater problem statistically is officers turning guns on themselves and their own families. 

From a tactical perspective, the need for first responder-level capacity to deal with heavily armed suspects of any stripe was certainly illustrated here.

Lance Eldridge, PoliceOne Contributor: Call Me a Pessimist
I’m not sure there can really be any lessons learned in one year. Certainly, there were lessons, but whether or not officers “learn” them is a different matter. 

What Dan Marcou’s “7 Lessons” makes clear is that the responsibility for “learning" lessons rests with individual officers. 

What should trainers do differently? If they’ve been doing the right things, nothing. As Richard Fairburn points out, trainers must continue to stress good character and reinforce good, sound basic policing skills. 

Call me a pessimist, but one can also rightly ask if we ever can really learn the right lessons. In our litigious culture everyone involved has to play everything close to their chest. It’s difficult for officers to admit errors when their job and future could be at stake. Much of an investigation may remain secreted behind the understandable restrictions on the release of the results of an internal investigation. Other important facts may emerge during the build-up to a trial, but then these so-called “facts” are bent and skewered to fit either a prosecutor’s or defense attorney’s narrative.

Other events can be so horrendous they truly change policing by starting a debate that can last for decades. Columbine did that for active shooters. Newtown could do the same for an armed response in schools. Should students barricade in classrooms? Get out as soon as possible? One may make it easier for police to respond, while the other could, in certain circumstances, save lives. Circumstances change and LE must remain flexible enough to adapt to the situation and overcome adversity. 

We may not know what the Dorner tragedy has taught us until the next incident. Sadly, surely there will be one.

Doug Wyllie, PoliceOne Editor in Chief: Plenty More Learning Remaining
I will write more extensively on this subject next week (and don’t want to steal my own thunder here). I will say that in my opinion, the Dorner incident has not yet changed law enforcement training, tactics, mindset, and methods to the extent that I believe it could (or should!).

I’ll address the three groups (agencies, trainers, and individual officers) in reverse order. 

I think the cops who (before Dorner) were true 5%ers doubled down on getting the training and equipment — on their own time and their own dime, if necessary — that they need to win in a confrontation against an adversary who possesses a skillset more dangerous that the “average asshole” on the street. While attending live-fire and classroom training such as those presented by my friend and PoliceOne colleague Ken Hardesty, I’ve seen those hard-charging cops sharpen the sword physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Meanwhile, I’ve found there to be very few “new faces” in those training sessions, leading me to conclude that those who (before Dorner) were sitting on the couch at home remain there. In my opinion, they do so at their own peril.

I’ve seen our very best police trainers (far too numerous to list) effectively incorporate the Dorner incident into their curriculum. Conversely, I’ve attended seminars on ambush preparedness without the name Dorner being mentioned even once — as if the slides had been etched in stone years ago.

I’ve heard rumblings and rumors that certain agencies are being more proactive about preparing for a Dorner-type scenario, but I’ve also heard the all-too-common “it can’t happen here” refrain, typically phrased along the lines of, “We’re not LAPD. We don’t have that kind of problem.”

What have we learned since the Dorner incident?

I suppose that the sum of my observation is that we’ve learned that we’ve still got plenty more learning remaining to be done.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2018 PoliceOne.com. All rights reserved.