An LAPD Critic Comes in From the Cold

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It was an extraordinary event. Long a nemesis of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Connie Rice celebrated the publication of her memoir, Power Concedes Nothing: One Women's Quest for Social Justice in America, From the Kill Zones to the Courtroom in the Compstat Room in the LAPD's sparkling new, glass-walled downtown administrative headquarters.

Her biting public criticism and her filing of a stream of police abuse lawsuits had made her a despised figure for many on the force. But her book party early this month was not only hosted by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck; the guests lining up to have their books signed included LAPD officers, police commissioners and city officials (as well as former gang members and long-time critics of the LAPD).

In a wide-ranging conversation with Joe Domanick, TCR's West Coast Bureau Chief, Rice recounted her remarkable journey from LAPD pariah to honored guest and partner in the ongoing reformation of an LAPD whose earlier policing philosophy ignited the deadly 1992 LA riots. Rice, the director and co-founder of the non-profit Civil Rights legal and policy organization, the Advancement Project, also discussed her work with law enforcement, elected officials, educators, community organizations and former gang intervention workers to reduce violence, bad health and school drop-out rates in LA's poor neighborhoods.

The Crime Report: You are the great granddaughter of slaves, the daughter of a U.S. Air Force colonel and a cousin of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Talk a little about your family.

Connie Rice: It's a complicated story. My great grandparents were Julia Head and John Wesley Rice. She is reported to have been the child of an Indian and a slave, or a slave-owner and a slave. He was the son of a slave and a slave owner, and was 13 when he was freed. They had 13 kids. My grandfather was one, and Condoleezza's grandfather was another. We had very big families descended from the youngest one of each family. That is why there are only four generations.

TCR: Your father was a pilot, diplomat and career Air Force officer. When did he join the Air Force?

Rice: Right after ROTC at Howard University, after the Korean War. At Howard he majored in Soviet studies, just like my cousin Condi later did. He speaks four languages, including Russian fluently. I was an Air Force kid. We moved 17 times in 22 years.

TCR: You worked for what you call "the best civil rights firm in the world –Thurgood Marshall's law firm," the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. So you were no stranger to big city police departments and their relations with poor black and brown communities. Yet when you arrived in Los Angeles in 1990, you write that you were amazed at the Los Angeles Police Department's brutality.

Rice: I was, absolutely. The LAPD had a centurion-warrior model of policing that it had carried to such an extreme that it had ended up actually creating a war on the community. And that was exactly how the community was experiencing it. Gang violence was out of control, but the community never turned against the gangs and their violence because the LAPD itself was so violent, lawless and alienating— and was constantly creating cases to put on innocent people. The wrongful conviction rate, [if it were ever disclosed], would have been jaw-dropping. And there were 8,000 unsolved murders. If you have got 8,000 unsolved murders, you have no law and order. So you had a community that wasn't being respected by the police, while it was being terrorized by the gangs and had nowhere to turn.

TCR: Almost as soon as you arrived and went to work for the Los Angeles chapter of the Legal Defense Fund you became involved with the rest of the office in focusing on police abuse lawsuits.

Rice: Police misconduct was so out of control in LA that there was an actual police misconduct bar. Who ever heard of an entire wing of lawyers, devoted solely to that? The LAPD was the worst, but we sued Los Angeles County in over 40 individual cases of police abuse by Sheriff Deputies. Lawsuits were the only check on police abuse. The [Los Angeles] City Council would do nothing, they just kept writing checks. The LAPD knew they could act with impunity because the politicians and the police commission would never question them.

TCR: There was one lawsuit in particular that was key to the evolution of your thinking about how best to deal with police abuse and the culture of the LAPD. That was your 1991 suit against the department's K9 Unit.

Rice: The dogs had an 80-percent bite rate. They were viciously trained so the biting of a suspect was their reward. They had a 47 percent hospital rate. The rest of the force had a less than 1 percent hospital rate. Sixteen handlers were putting more people in the hospital than the rest of the 8,000-person force. Finally video tapes of defenseless suspects being bitten surfaced, and the LAPD was forced into settlement negotiations. The dog handlers said 'Don't give us a Consent Decree, just let us change this ourselves.' We said okay. Within seven months every single dog had been retrained from find-and-bite to find-and-circle. The bite rate plummeted from 80 percent down to 5 percent.

TCR: And what did you learn from that?

Rice: That when cops wanted to change they could. Quickly and permanently. That litigation is only one gladiator in the arena. That the real fight was for the first civil right of all— the freedom from violence. And if I was going to secure that and other civil rights, I had to change my game. I realized you couldn't force them to see their use of force and tactics through someone else's lens, because they refused to listen to anybody. But they would listen to numbers because the LAPD is a quantity-driven culture. And I saw how the good cops were trying to cope under a mantle of warrior policing, and do good things.

TCR: You had the opportunity to "change your game" when former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton was named the new reform chief of the LAPD in 2002. He asked you to chair an investigation pinpointing the causes of the 1999 Rampart Division Scandal, which involved drug-dealing LAPD gang-officers, and widespread brutality and evidence planting, and also forced the department into a court-supervised federal consent decree mandating fundamental reform of the department's use of force.

Rice: When Bratton asked me to do the Rampart investigation, I gave some conditions: access to the archives, the Police Protective League to co-pilot the investigation with me, and to use whatever experts I wanted. And Bratton agreed. And what we learned from the insights of the officers themselves – people like [the current LAPD Chief] Charlie Beck -- was enormously helpful in our understanding of what had gone wrong. And that report flipped me into completely new positions within a whole new set of institutions: the LAPD, City Council, the Public Health Committee, institutions within County government.

TCR: By the time Bratton resigned as Chief in 2009 the LAPD had met the requirements of the consent degree and he'd put the department well on the path to reform. Why do you think he succeeded?

Rice: He was smart, savvy and experienced. He brought in a whole team of outside experts to help him. And he created as unlikely allies a brand of police reformers and community reformers from inside L.A. and the department. Those insiders helped Bratton promote the right people. Under Bratton it was just a whole different dynamic. A dynamic that I didn't think we would ever reach. I thought the war on gangs might end and maybe we could stop suing the police enough to do some meetings together. But to actually become operational partners was nothing I could ever have envisioned.

TCR: How important was the consent decree?

Rice: It was another weapon. Gary Feess [the federal judge overseeing the consent degree] had been the counsel to the Christopher Commission [a city commission that had recommended reforms after the Rodney King beating.] And Feess' attitude was that "we missed the mark with the Christopher Commission but we're not missing the mark again. I am not letting go of this until the LAPD changes," so he held their feet to the fire.

TCR: Following the Rampart investigation you became deeply involved with community policing and gang intervention. You wrote a city-funded, 1,000-page study of L.A. gangs in 2007 called "The Call to Action Report." Talk about that.

Rice: The report basically said LA had to change direction; that everything we'd been doing was actually only increasing the problem, and that we couldn't arrest our way out of our gang epidemic. Instead we had to pour our resources into these hot zones [and] start doing a wrap-around approach, to think of these areas an eco-systems, do a public health model, to think of it as curing a disease. Plant our flag and not leave, and make it safe enough for the kids to get school. To do that, we had to marshal the business sector, faith-based sector, law enforcement, the County government—all the parents. It is absurd that this was news. But it was.

TCR: Has that happened?

Rice: The serious money isn't there. But as Bratton said, "the report changed how LA dealt with gangs." The Mayor (Antonio Villarigosa) has put his full faith and credit behind it, and even behind the gang-intervention Urban Peace Academy, (which trains and accredits former gang members to help stem gang violence.) The first act of Charlie Beck's career as (the current) L.A. Chief of Police was to get the City Council fund the Academy.

TCR: So what is Community Policing a starting to look like in Los Angeles today?

Rice: We've already graduated several Academy classes. The Summer Nights Light Parks and similar programs have resulted in jaw dropping crime reductions. The gangs agreed to cooperate around Summer Night Lights. When you do it and you do it efficiently to scale, you end up changing the physics of a community. That's not crime fighting. LAPD has never produced a 60 percent drop in gang homicides. That's the community, but we and the LAPD made the community safe enough to change itself and we brought in the gangs because they had so much control over those parks. We involved them in the activities and gave them jobs. The homicides plummeted because gang members aren't running around and shooting each other at 11 o'clock at night.

TCR: So how would you sum up your journey with the LAPD?

Rice: With the Consent Decree, the department was forced to count arrests and complaints. But you can't force them to think of the community as their partner. You can't get them to feel compassion when they look at poor, black kids and poor Latino kids. A city lawsuit can't force a gang to change from predators to peacemakers. So, we are looking at a journey from centurion policing to community-policing, and from predator to peacemaker with the gang intervention Academy; with civil rights lawyers as the wind-beneath-the-wings of both the cops and the interventionists. And so we all changed roles, but first we had to change our eyes and lens.

Editor's Note: Connie Rice is a member of the advisory council of the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice, one of the collaborating partners of The Crime Report. This interview was abridged and condensed.

Joe Domanick is West Coast Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes reader comments.

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