Police conduct in Dorner manhunt a flagrant violation of international norms

Authorities stand in the charred remains of a  cabin set fire to by San Bernadino police, ending the manhunt of ex-cop Chris Dorner. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

Authorities stand in the charred remains of a cabin set fire to by San Bernadino police, ending the manhunt of ex-cop Chris Dorner. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

In the weeklong police manhunt for Christopher Dorner, a former LAPD officer who had declared asymmetrical war against the police department in retaliation for its racism and corruption, the police disregarded public safety and international norms with a reckless abandon that would have been shocking were it not so typical of U.S. police forces.

Culminating in the apparently intentional incineration of a cabin in which Dorner was hiding, the police pursuit of Dorner also included the shooting of three innocent civilians who police officers had mistaken for their suspect.

In one of those incidents, on February 7, the LAPD opened fire on two women with no warning, according to the victims’ lawyer. Attorney Glen Jonas said Maggie Carranza, 47, and her mother, 71-year-old Emma Hernandez, were delivering Los Angeles Times newspapers around 5:15 a.m. when police opened fire on their vehicle, a blue Toyota Tacoma that bore little resemblance to Dorner’s dark-colored Nissan pickup truck.

Jonas said, “There was no warning. There were no orders. No commands. Just gunshots.”

Pickup truck shot up by by police looking for Chris Dorner.

Pickup truck shot up by by police looking for Chris Dorner.

Police Chief Charlie Beck said the officers thought the women’s vehicle looked like Dorner’s. “Tragically, we believe this was a case of mistaken identity by the officers,” said Beck.

But as Jonas pointed out, “The vehicle is a different color. The license plate doesn’t match. There’s nothing there for you to start shooting people. And even if they had the person in question… Mr. Dorner…you still have to give them an opportunity to get out. You can’t just start administering street justice.”

According to Article 3 of the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, police “may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.”

The commentary on Article 3 further explains:

( a ) This provision emphasizes that the use of force by law enforcement officials should be exceptional; while it implies that law enforcement officials may be authorized to use force as is reasonably necessary under the circumstances for the prevention of crime or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders, no force going beyond that may be used.

( b ) National law ordinarily restricts the use of force by law enforcement officials in accordance with a principle of proportionality. It is to be understood that such national principles of proportionality are to be respected in the interpretation of this provision. In no case should this provision be interpreted to authorize the use of force which is disproportionate to the legitimate objective to be achieved.

( c ) The use of firearms is considered an extreme measure. Every effort should be made to exclude the use of firearms, especially against children. In general, firearms should not be used except when a suspected offender offers armed resistance or otherwise jeopardizes the lives of others and less extreme measures are not sufficient to restrain or apprehend the suspected offender. In every instance in which a firearm is discharged, a report should be made promptly to the competent authorities.

Clearly, by opening fire on innocent civilians with no warning, the police flagrantly disregarded their international obligations under this Code of Conduct. Their actions also flew in the face of what should generally be expected of police officers in the United States. As David Johnston wrote at Salon,

That innocent people get shot by cops who think their own safety is paramount, whose actions show they value their own lives more than those of people they are sworn to protect, is part of a major problem in America that has not abated much despite decades of efforts to make policing more professional and less brutish. It is the policy of police departments that police cannot kill innocents to save themselves, in effect, that sometimes your sworn duty is to die. But, on the streets, it is far too often another story entirely.

In another incident on February 7, a police cruiser in Torrance, Calif., slammed into David Perdue’s pickup truck and officers opened fire. His pickup, police later explained, also loosely matched the description of Dorner’s vehicle, despite the fact that the pickups were different makes and colors. Perdue also looked nothing like Dorner, being several inches shorter, a hundred pounds lighter and a different race.

“I don’t want to use the word buffoonery but it really is unbridled police lawlessness,” said Robert Sheahen, Perdue’s attorney.

Following these incidents, drivers in Southern California began putting signs on their vehicles imploring the police not to shoot them.

not dorner

But the police shooting of innocent civilians during the Dorner manhunt was only one troubling aspect the police pursuit. Reportedly, Christopher Dorner became one of the first Americans in the U.S. to be targeted by surveillance drones, according to a report by the U.K. Express. An unnamed “senior police source” told the Express, “the thermal imaging cameras the drones use may be our only hope of finding him. On the ground, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

When asked if drones had been deployed to search for Dorner, Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz told the Express, “we are using all the tools at our disposal.”

Customs and Border Patrol later denied that drones had been deployed to help track Dorner, with Ralph DeSio telling Salon that “Reports that U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s unmanned aircraft systems are being used are incorrect. CBP UAS are not flying in support of the search.”

The reports of drones being deployed in U.S. skies come as a UN investigation has just been launched to examine in detail 25 drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine where civilian deaths are credibly alleged. Announced on Jan. 24, it is the first official international inquiry into the drone program.

Although there have been no allegations that the drone reportedly deployed to track Dorner had the intention of carrying out an airstrike on the target, it’s worth bearing in mind that the U.S. drone program now coming under such intense international criticism in places like Pakistan and Yemen began as surveillance drones. Once they start being used by domestic law enforcement to help track down suspects, it’s not a very big leap to start using weaponized drones to take those suspects out.

In Dorner’s case, however, the police appear to have resorted to cruder methods – simply setting fire to the cabin in which the suspect was hiding. Although police deny intentionally incinerating their target – which could expose police officers to charges of arson and homicide – the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the fire was set intentionally.

In particular, the police themselves can be heard in audio recordings saying things like “fucking burn this motherfucker,”  “burn that fucking house down,” and “go ahead with the plan with the burners” prior to the cabin going up in flames. “Burner” is police slang for pyrotechnic teargas canister. In an audio clip broadcast by CBS Los Angeles, police are heard saying, “get the gas, burn it down.”

“Alright, we’re gonna go ahead with the plan with the burners,” one officer says.

“Copy,” replies another.

“Like we talked about,” the first officer responds.

“The burners are deployed, and we have a fire,” says another officer moments later, before the police dispatcher repeats the statement.

Within minutes of the fire starting, police note that the cabin is “starting to collapse.”

After the cabin was incinerated, the police then ludicrously claimed that it was not intentional. While confirming they started the blaze, they insisted that the use of pyrotechnic canisters had not been intended to cause a fire.

“It was not on purpose. We didn’t intentionally burn down that cabin to get Mr. Dorner out,” John McMahon, a spokesperson for San Bernardino sheriff’s department, told a news conference.

As former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, however, pointed out on Democracy Now, “Whether it was intentional or not, a very predictable outcome of deploying seven burners in what appears to have been a wooden cabin would predictably leave it in rubble.”

Stamper says that he was “troubled” by the police decision to use incendiary chemical agents. “By definition, these pyrotechnic versions of tear gas start fires,” he said. “They are intended for outdoor use. They are not intended for contained structures, particularly wooden structures.”

A discussion on Democracy Now focused on how the incineration of Dorner’s cabin was just the latest in a long history of U.S. police forces using incendiary devices against suspects, particularly in stand-off situations. The case drew comparisons especially with the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which killed 55 adults and 28 children.

Another close parallel is the 1985 police assault on the MOVE residence in Philadelphia, in which police dropped a bomb on the house, resulting in the destruction of 65 nearby houses and the deaths of 11 people, including five children.

Regarding the question of so recklessly employing the use of incendiary devices as the police did in Philadelphia, Waco and most recently in Southern California, Stamper says that it contravenes the police’s primary, overriding responsibility, which is to protect and preserve human life:

Your number one responsibility is the protection and preservation of human life. And when we employ tactics of the type that we’ve been talking about this morning in order to achieve what has essentially transformed itself into a military or certainly military-like mission, when we escalate tension and escalate tactics that predictably lead to death, we have violated our most basic, indeed, our most profound responsibility, and that is the protection and preservation of human life.

This responsibility is also touched on in the International Code of Conduct, which states, “In the performance of their duty, law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons.”

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