The Dorner case: When cops turn rogue and how to prevent it

What makes a LEO turn from protector to punisher? How can we predict when this will happen and to whom? How do fellow officers react to an eruption of violence by one of their own?

The search for the rogue former LAPD cop came to an apparent end Tuesday when a man believed to be Christopher Dorner bolted from hiding, stole two cars, barricaded himself in a vacant cabin, and mounted a last stand in a shootout that left one sheriff's deputy dead.

As uneasy as we all feel when a citizen commits an act of mass violence, we are all the more creeped out when the perpetrator is someone whom society regards as one of their protectors. That’s why media accounts of bad doctors, bad soldiers, and bad cops get such glaring attention.

But what makes a LEO turn from protector to punisher? How can we predict when this will happen and to whom? How do fellow officers react to an eruption of violence by one of their own? And what can the law enforcement community do to prevent these incidents in the future?

Why Cops Turn Rogue
It is rarely the case that an otherwise high-functioning officer just snaps and becomes violent; typically, there has been a long trail of less severe incidents that have been overlooked and ignored.

These may include:

An unusually high number of excessive force complaints
Evidence of corruption such as fabrication of evidence
Misuse of vehicles and other duty equipment
Multiple absences, latenesses, and other scheduling abuses
A history of multiple complaints and grievances filed by the officer against the department
Frequent confrontations with coworkers and supervisors; and/or a history of domestic problems in the officer’s family and personal life

This is typically the officer for whom “it’s always something.” In this respect, these officers share many of the features of other disgruntled employees who are at risk for violence. 

Some of these officers see themselves as a “cop’s cop” — priding themselves in their prowess with weapons and tactics, surveillance, vehicle pursuit, or number of arrests, which can result in frequent confrontations with the public.

Others skillfully play the surrounding community and are often seen as “hero officers” who are always the first to rush in to save a citizen from assault or rescue a kitten out of a tree.

They may receive multiple glowing commendations from the public, all the while leading a secret underlife of corruption or criminal activity. When their double life is exposed, they may at first try to protect themselves by deflecting blame, but pushed to a wall, they may resort to violence for self-protection or revenge.

Officers with a narcissistic, paranoid, or borderline personality structure may crave adulation from peers, supervisors, and the general public, and when they fail to get enough of it — or worse, are unfairly (in their eyes) disciplined or terminated from their position — they may boil over into paranoid conspiracy thinking or narcissistic rage.

While this usually expresses itself in the form of intradepartmental grievances, lawsuits, and formal complaints, some individuals may convince themselves that all the blame for their misfortune falls on a particular person or organization, and that they therefore “have no choice” but to wreak violent vengeful justice.

Typically, all blame is externalized — nothing is ever their fault — and each person who fails to help them sufficiently becomes added to the hit list of co-conspirators who deserve their righteous comeuppance.

As with many mass-homicide scenarios, the perpetrator is often prepared to die in a Rambo-esque “blaze of glory,” rather than be taken and treated like a common criminal, sometimes fantasizing that his cinematically heroic acts will be lauded and his name will become a household word. 

How Fellow Officers React to Rogue Cops
Any employee who decides to take the law into his own hands presents a dangerous situation for supervisors, coworkers, and the general community — and law enforcement professionals are trained to regard these suspects with extreme caution.

But when the perpetrator is a fellow LEO, the emotional reaction by other officers can be especially wrenching, and may fall into several categories.

There but for the grace of God go I. This is the identification factor. Many officers have felt unappreciated, disrespected, exploited, manipulated, abused, and/or discriminated against by members of their own department.

They can well relate to the frustration and anger of the rogue cop, and may even have harbored violent revenge fantasies of their own (“Boy, would I enjoy seeing that asshole lieutenant’s blood spatter on the wall.”).

But most people possess that inner mental brake pedal that prevents us from putting our violent fantasies into action, either because of moral considerations or simply because the trouble we’d be in just isn’t worth the satisfaction we might get.

We have other fish to fry we tell ourselves, so forget that jerk.

We may take administrative or legal action or even quit, but we know what the boundaries are for civilized behavior. But even though we may disagree with the rogue cop’s actions, we may be able to relate to his motives and we may secretly wonder: “What would it take to push me over the edge?”

You know the drill, why are you putting us through this? Even if the motive for the rogue cop’s actions are understandable, nobody knows better than a LEO how dangerous a deadly-force encounter with an armed suspect can be.

Intense anger may be felt for the suspect who is knowingly endangering the lives of his colleagues, even if they are ex-colleagues. This seems to be a stark perversion of the code of mutual protection and backup that officers have: we’re supposed to do everything humanly possible to protect our brothers in blue and this guy is doing everything he can to harm us.

He should know better — how dare he put us through this!

Great — one more reason for people to hate us. Most officers strive to preserve an image of service and professionalism. They hate it when the media drool over “bad cop” stories that are often exaggerated or taken out of context.

A rogue officer who commits violence is catnip to all the cop-haters who probably didn’t need another excuse for their prejudice but who now have one more rationalization to treat law enforcement with contempt or outright confrontation: “You cops are all crazy killers, so I have a right to defend myself, right?”

Although most citizens have at least a grudging respect for good LEOs, rogue cop incidents provide one more slap in the face of the majority of good cops just trying to do their jobs.

Preventing Rogue Cop Incidents
No prevention plan is foolproof, but there are common sense measures that police agencies can employ to minimize the risk of cops going rogue.

Although events like the Christopher Dorner tragedy are rare, other types of everyday LEO misconduct are more common, and many of the prevention measures that apply to them will also be effective for preventing the more dramatic episodes.

1.) Selection and Screening
Take officer selection seriously. Many problem officers are flagged on pre-employment screening, but the signs are overlooked or ignored.

If someone has had a past history of trouble, it is likely to follow him or her to your department.

2.) Education and Training
Train officers to be alert to signs of stress in their peers and encourage a culture of support so that officers who think one of their peers needs help can feel comfortable informing their chain of command without being branded as a snitch.

In all employment settings, fellow workmates are typically the first to notice a problem long before it becomes apparent to supervisors or managers.

3.) Fitness-for-duty Evaluations
If an officer’s performance problems seems to relate to a mental disorder or stress syndrome, refer them for a thorough psychological evaluation — not as a form of punishment or stigma, but just the opposite: to give the underperforming or misperforming officer a chance to correct the problem before it becomes a serious disciplinary issue. 

4.) Mental Health Services
Referral for psychological evaluation should be backed up by support and encouragement for seeking psychological help.

The rank and file will take their cue from the brass as to how mental health services are regarded within the departmental culture. Many a violent incident has been deterred and many a law enforcement career saved by appropriate mental health intervention and support.

5.) Fair Discipline
A law enforcement agency lives and dies by its rules, protocols, and chain of command. Where internal investigation and disciplinary action are necessary, every effort should be made to administer these measures fairly.

It is astounding how many incidents of workplace violence are precipitated by crass, harsh, insensitive, and prejudicial disciplinary action on the part of cruel of just clueless supervisors or managers.

Yes, a person must possess a certain entitled and aggressive mindset to commit mass murder, but don’t give these individuals an excuse to act out their revenge fantasies by meting out gratuitously callous discipline or termination.

Remember All the Good Guys
Most LEOs do a competent job and many do an exemplary one. Bad cops of all stripes, from the simple moocher and goldbrick, to the thumper of excessive force, to the murderous rogue cop, are the minority.

Take pride in the important role you play in society and protect that role by being alert to those within your ranks who would tarnish and demean it.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.
NOTE: If you have a question for this column, please submit it to this website.

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