Privacy SOS

On the fire at Big Bear and the militarization of the domestic police

Thousands of people followed the Christopher Dorner manhunt live on television and social media, shocked by the national spectacle unfolding. Just when it seemed as if there was going to be some kind of resolution to the nearly week-long chase, after police said they had trapped and surrounded Dorner in a Big Bear cabin, the police asked press on the scene to stop tweeting and reporting about what they saw. Most of the media on the scene complied with the request, but those following along on social media did not.

Some of those who kept tweeting were listening to police scanners from afar. What they heard on the scanners has sparked a controversy about how exactly the cabin in which Dorner was trapped and ultimately perished was set on fire.

You can listen to the relevant portion from the police scanners in the video above and decide for yourself what you think happened.

Denying that the police had intentionally set the building on fire, a spokesman told the press that they first deployed "cold" cannisters of tear gas and only later "introduced [pyrotechnic] cannisters into the residence, and a fire erupted."

But former police chief Norm Stamper's comments on DemocracyNow! today suggest that if the police did not intend to set the fire when they threw the pyrotechnics, they didn't know what they were doing.

"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 said. "I'm troubled by the use of incendiary chemical agents. By definition, these pyrotechnic versions of tear gas start fires. They are intended for outdoor use; they are not intended for contained structures, particularly wooden structures. Another observation, that I think bears real careful examination…is the almost hysterical command to use those burners. The expletives that were used begin to suggest that emotion, rather than professionalism, rather than a calm and deliberate approach to extracting Mr. Dorner, if in fact that was possible, were simply not used."

The Dorner incident is not the first time that questions about proportionality and the use of incendiary devices have been raised in the context of increasingly militarized police forces in the United States. The subsequent clip on DN! discusses the 1985 police bombing of the radical MOVE group in Philly with the lone survivor of the bombing, Ramona Africa. The segment also includes an interview with police militarization expert Radley Balko.

Of the militarization of the police, former Seattle PD chief Stamper said that it's the police's number one responsibility to "protect and preserve human life." Stamper said that the increasingly militarized missions and actions of state and local police betray that responsibility.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.