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Will Chris Dorner Be Remembered As a Hero Or a Villain?

Christopher Dorner, the former LAPD officer accused of multiple homicides in Southern California this month, is one of the more complicated figures in recent memory. Yes, he’s an alleged murderer. Yes, he sent Anderson Cooper a bizarre parcel with a bullet-riddled coin in it. But his manifesto explaining these crimes humanizes him in a way that’s gained him a cult following, and paints a portrait of the LAPD remarkably consistent with how many residents perceive it.

That portrait isn’t pretty. It accuses officers of abuses ranging from racially motivated harassment to brutality against civilians. Dorner's claim that “the department has not changed since the Rampart and Rodney King days” is not only unsurprising to many, it’s taken as fact. But arguing its truth or falsehood misses the point: that his accusations are believable enough to potentially justify his actions speaks to both the LAPD’s corrupt reputation, and Dorner’s symbolic links to heroic pop culture figures.

I used to live in the South Division of LAPD jurisdiction, where Dorner patrolled. It’s a sprawling, vibrant, culturally rich part of the city that also birthed two infamous uprisings: the Watts Riots of 1965 and the L.A. Riots of 1992. Police harassment is a fact of life for local residents. Cops are seen not as protectors, but enemy occupiers.

This relationship is well documented in the world of entertainment. Boyz N the Hood, Training Day, and the music of NWA are a few examples. So it’s no surprise that parts of Dorner’s manifesto and the public discussion surrounding him are expressed in pop culture terms. For example, Dorner references Gang Starr’s Betrayal when he claims that, “It’s not JUST US, it’s JUSTICE,” and his actions find parallels in films like Serpico and First Blood. Columbia University professor Marc Lamont Hill even claimed that watching Dorner is like watching “a real-life superhero ... Django Unchained in real life.” It’s telling that some hail the man whose “reign of terror” has “robbed” Southern Californians of the “peace of mind [they] deserve” as a righteous avenger.

This concept might seem horrifying. Many say Dorner is a killer and must be punished, plain and simple. But to simply call him a villain seems too easy, especially considering the detail with which he’s documented LAPD abuses. His alleged crimes have already prompted Chief Charlie Beck to reopen these cases, though the department is quick to claim this isn’t because of Dorner’s actions, but to show that the LAPD is “fair and transparent.” It’s disturbing that it takes a tragedy of this magnitude for the department to address the problems that have plagued and destroyed its reputation since its inception.

Now that Dorner’s body was allegedly found, it will be interesting to see what legacy he leaves behind. But what holds true is that many have used the language of pop culture to paint him as a heroic crusader against a corrupt and racist institution. For better or for worse, this says a lot about our society.

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