Christopher Dorner and the “Burner”


The tactics employed against Christopher Dorner by the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department are attracting an awkward amount of interest since an audiotape surfaced with law enforcement officials referring to a munition as a “burner”.

As in (all quotes from the Feb. 15, 2013 LA Times report titled “As Dorner fired, tactics got toughter”):

“We’re going to go forward with the plan, with the burner,” the unidentified officer said, according to a recording of police radio transmissions reviewed by The Times.


“Seven burners deployed,” another officer responded several seconds later, according to the transmission which has circulated widely among law enforcement officials. “And we have a fire.”

I was interested in this issue because of an incident in Burma where Burmese police cleared an encampment of protesters trying to block expansion of a China-invested copper mine project.

The tear gas munitions fired into the protesters’ tents apparently caused severe burns to some of the protesters for reasons that are apparently not completely understood.

So I corresponded with an expert on police tactics and learned that there is indeed a munition commonly called “incendiary CS (CS standing for the inventors of the tear gas compound, Ben Corson and Roger Stoughton) gas” or, in day-to-day argot, “the burner”.

The tear gas chemical, 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, is actually a solid at room temperature, not a gas, and it doesn’t disperse quickly and thoroughly, as a gas would.  To be effective, the CS chemical has to be melted, dissolved in a solvent, or micropulverized and then mechanically dispersed.

In the burner scenario, the CS contains an explosive charge which generates intense heat in order to aerosolize the solution and evaporate the solvent, so that the CS instantaneously precipitates in a cloud of solid particles, saturates the target area, and rapidly incapacitates the subject/victim.

Intense heat is a fundamental feature of the incendiary CS gas shell.

If the shell used in the Dorner case was the similar to the munition employed in the disastrous siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco or the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia, an accurate description of the “burner” would be “thermal grenade with some tear gas added”.

With incendiary CS, fires are considered to be well-nigh inevitable if anything combustible is around.  So, the “burner” is only used as a last resort by law enforcement.

Of course, there is considerable skepticism that the circumstances of the Dorner siege—he was alone, barricaded in a cabin, and surrounded by law enforcement officers—demanded that the SBSD fire seven “burners” be fired into the  cabin instead of waiting him out.

I don’t think the arguments put forth by defenders of the operation could withstand the scrutiny of a middle school forensics team.

Here they are, courtesy of the LA Times:

“What difference does it make if one of the officers puts a … round in his head, drives the armored vehicle over his body when they are knocking the building down, or he dies in a conflagration?” said David Klinger, a use-of-force expert at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and a former LAPD officer. “If he is trying to surrender you can’t do any of those things … But if he is actively trying to murder people, there’s no doubt that deadly force is appropriate and it doesn’t matter what method is used to deliver it.”

Geoffery Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina who also specializes in police tactics, agreed.

“I don’t understand what the big deal is,” Alpert said. “This man had already shot two officers and was suspected of murdering other people. He wasn’t responding in a rational manner. The actions you take have to remove the threat and if it requires extreme measures, then so be it.”

I might point out that the arguments advanced by these two distinguished scholars both reference rules of war, not policing.  I guess we can chalk this up to the further militarization of US security culture post-9/11.

In wartime, any force that is not actively engaged in surrender is fair game.  This was the justification for the “turkey shoot” on the “highway of death” —the attack on Saddam Hussein’s forces as they were withdrawing from the front lines after Saddam Hussein had accepted the UN resolution and a ceasefire had been declared, and the concurrent “Battle of Rumaili”, a five-hour air and artillery bombardment carried out by General McCaffrey’s forces against helpless units of the Iraqi Republican Guard boxed in on the Rumaila Causeway on their way back to Baghdad.

It is different for accused criminals in the United States.  Some kind of trial/sentencing/due process thing is supposed to intervene before someone can be killed for not surrendering.

Mr. Alpert, while upholding the proud tradition of South Carolina higher education, is further off base.  Despite determined efforts by the United States to stretch the boundaries, under international law a pre-emptive strike is only permitted in the case of an imminent threat, not the past or potential threat represented by a guy barricaded alone in a cabin surrounded by dozens of law enforcement officers with guns.

As to the issue of who was “responding in a rational manner” that day…

The thought processes of the San Bernadino County Sheriff’s Department—which had lost one of their own to Dorner—are probably reflected in an alleged transcription from the radio chatter that the LA Times demurely declined to reproduce, but was reported by the no-holds barred NY Post:

“Burn this motherf–ker!” one officer shouted …Amid sounds of gunfire, voices can be heard shouting, “Burn it down!” and “Shoot the gas!”

Peter Lee edits China Matters. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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