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Mayor's Style Is Praised, Criticized

Inglewood: Unwavering Dorn has been in the national spotlight since taped police beating.


Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn gave the tempered approach one try.

Faced with an angry crowd in his City Hall office last week, Dorn at first told the protesters he thought Jeremy J. Morse, the officer captured on videotape manhandling an Inglewood teenager, should be suspended without pay. That did not go far enough for the crowd, however; one demonstrator shouted his unhappiness, and the rest of the group grumbled with disapproval.

It was then that Dorn abandoned the measured remarks to do what, through a long and varied career in the public eye, he has almost always done--speak his mind.

Surrounded by a brace of news cameras, Dorn ripped Morse's conduct as inexcusable. In his opinion, the former judge and prosecutor said, Morse had committed felony assault, assault with a deadly weapon, battery and child abuse.

"This type of conduct cannot be tolerated anywhere in the United States and especially in my city," Dorn said. "Especially in my city."

That moment was pure Dorn, according to Edward Humes, an author who spent months in Dorn's juvenile courtroom in the mid-'90s while researching a book on the juvenile justice system.

"He came out shooting from the hip and said what he thought, whereas 99% of the mayors in the country would be worried about possible liability," Humes said.

Although some have questioned Dorn's comments--his own police chief, Ronald Banks, advised officials against passing judgment on the case--Najee Ali, an activist who has harshly criticized Morse, credited the mayor with defusing an angry protest.

"It was Mayor Dorn's finest moment. He showed bold and courageous leadership and had real sense of the pulse of this city," Ali said. "The way tempers were rising, I really feel like he prevented a possible riot."

Dorn has lived in California for more than 40 years, arriving here from Oklahoma in 1960. Since then, he has worked as a postal clerk, deputy sheriff, prosecutor, judge and mayor. He first drew public attention during his years as a crusading juvenile court judge, and Dorn said his style remains unwavering.

"I don't change because I change jobs," he said.

In fact, close associates say that except for the gray hairs that seem to have finally taken a prolonged battle for his once salt-and-pepper beard and low afro, the flinty-eyed 66-year-old doesn't seem to change at all.

As a young prosecutor and then as a Superior Court judge, Dorn became convinced that the best way to turn lives around was to intervene early. He served two stints on the juvenile court bench--in 1982-89 and 1994-96--where he developed a reputation as a stern, relentless monitor of the young people who came before him.

He kept youths on probation for years, demanded frequent progress reports and laced his proceedings with sermonizing.

"Rarely a day went by without seeing him dress down a kid, a witness or a prosecutor," Humes said. "Usually it was all three."

Some of Dorn's tactics were criticized as skirting the limits of what was legal; he was so unwilling to try juvenile offenders as adults that the L.A. County district attorney's office worked to prevent him from hearing "fitness" cases in which such determinations were made.

Public defenders joined prosecutors in boycotting Dorn's courtroom, in their case because they found his monitoring of juvenile offenders oppressive. Dorn's response was to invoke an obscure provision in state law that allows parents to petition the Juvenile Court to take charge of troubled children--even if they've committed no crime. He threw open the doors to his courtroom to any parent exasperated enough to submit a child to his personal brand of justice. They flocked to the "hanging judge," as some called him.

Eventually, Dorn's tactics irritated other members of the bench, and in 1989 the presiding judge removed him from juvenile proceedings and transferred him to downtown Superior Court. Dorn chafed in that post for four years. When a new presiding judge took over and reassigned him to juvenile court, an unbowed Dorn picked up right where he had left off.

That willingness to test the limits of his authority--whatever his capacity--is both Dorn's greatest strength and his greatest weakness, according to those who have known him for years. Detractors see it as a tendency to be autocratic and irresponsible, supporters as the mark of a leader guided by unwavering principles.

In the current case, for instance, some welcome his defense of 16-year-old Donovan Jackson, but others accuse him of abandoning the police officer.

Critics like Roy Burns, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, say Dorn should have held his tongue until an investigation was completed. "It does nothing but inflame the community when they see their leader criticizing a police officer before all the facts are in," Burns said.

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