LOS ANGELES >> For the Los Angeles Police Department, the allegations of departmental corruption and racism by a former police officer now accused of a revenge-fueled killing rampage are the words of a delusional man, detached from the reality of the huge improvements the force has undergone over the years.
”These are the rantings of a clearly very sick individual," William J. Bratton, a former department commissioner, said Friday. "It would be a shame if he was able to rally to his cause people who remember the bad old days of the LAPD."
Yet for whatever changes the department has undergone since the days when it was notorious as an outpost of rampant racism and corruption, the accusations by the suspect — however disjointed and unhinged — have struck a chord. They are a reminder, many black leaders said, that some problems remain and, no less significant, that memories of abuses and mistreatment remain strong in many parts of this city.
”Our community doesn’t need this," said the Rev. William D. Smart, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California. "We don’t need something like this opening old wounds."
”While there been a lot of improvements, there’s still room for improvement," he said. "There is still one segment of our community that historically distrusts the police force."
Indeed, in posts on Facebook and in interviews, some black residents offered at least a partial endorsement of the sentiments expressed by the suspect, Christopher J. Dorner, in a manifesto posted on his Facebook page. Dorner, the subject of a manhunt, claimed that racism was a factor in his dismissal from the department in 2008, and that it was as endemic in the force as ever.
"We look at the police differently from the way you look at the police," said Hodari Sababu, 56, a tour guide who has lived in the South Central section of Los Angeles for 40 years. "In your community, the police is there to protect and serve; in my community, the police are there to harass and to insult and to kill if they get a chance."
Charles Hutchinson, 72, a tennis coach who lives in Los Angeles, said he believed Dorner’s story that he had witnessed a fellow officer kick a suspect. Dorner was dismissed on charges that he had falsified that report.
”These things happen all the time," he said. "I truthfully think that he was wronged by the Police Department. I think that senior officer kicked that homeless guy, they do that all the time."
Yet even as he said that, Hutchinson was quick to add that the situation had improved markedly from the days when William H. Parker III ran a force notorious for profiling and beatings. And no matter the lingering perceptions, the evidence reflects that change.
As Bratton noted, polls have increasingly shown the department’s image has improved across the board, including among blacks and Latinos. Whites now make up fewer than one-third of the force, a sharp turnaround from 30 years ago.
”There has been a huge change," Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, who wrote a report on departmental abuses, said in an email. But, he added, "It would be naive and misguided to say that racism in any institution is entirely a thing of the past."
Charlie Beck, the police chief, said he did not give any credence to the claims Dorner made about racism in department.
”You’re talking about a homicide suspect who has committed atrocious crimes," he said. "If you want to give any attribution to his ramblings on the Internet, go right ahead. But I do not."
Dorner was dismissed on the recommendations of a police board that found he had filed a false report claiming to have witnessed a partner kick a homeless man in the process of an arrest. Dorner sought without success to have the court overturn his dismissal.
Three witnesses to the arrest said that they had not seen the alleged assault; the father of the homeless person said his son told him he had been kicked.
Beck — and Bratton, who said he had also reviewed the file — said he had no doubt that Dorner’s dismissal was appropriate.
”That case was thoroughly adjudicated, it was reviewed at multiple levels," the chief said at a news conference. "In the final analysis, you’ll find Dorner’s statements to be self-serving, and the statements of someone who is thoroughly unhappy with his lot in life."
Still, in some black neighborhoods, where the case has been followed extremely closely, there was evidence of skepticism about how Dorner was treated by the department, even as all made it clear that they did not condone the violence he is accused of.
”Black people feel like we’ve been targets for so long, we’ve always felt that the LAPD was corrupt," said Kim Pace, 45, a bus driver from Carson. "So for us, it’s like, OK, they pushed him over the edge."
Sababu, the tour guide, said the sight of a police officer kicking a suspect was not uncommon in the history of South Central Los Angeles. "Here you have an officer that’s actually standing up for a citizen and saying, That’s wrong, why are you kicking that guy in the face, and for his efforts, he’s fired," he said.
Bratton expressed concern at the fallout of Dorner’s statements, suggesting that they might become a rallying cry for the disaffected. "Just look at the Facebook postings around this issue and some of the crazies that come out of the woodwork who are rallying to this guy’s cause," he said.
Smart said there had been significant improvements in the Police Department’s standing with minorities over the past decade, even if some problems remained. He expressed concern that the nuances of that situation could be lost.
”While there’s been a lot of improvement, there’s still a need to make better relations," he said. "Whether or not all these things happened to him or not, this is causing some people — you can see this on Facebook, on the articles online — to say, ‘I told you so.’"