The following is an excerpt from a very important interview with civil rights attorney Connie Rice on how she helped change the culture and transformed the Los Angeles Police Department. It is from Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge” last December.
Every working police officer today needs to hear and understand this.
In the 1980s and 90s, civil rights attorney Connie Rice was on a roll. Her class-action lawsuits won more than $10 billion in damages in the Los Angeles area, but more and more police brutality cases were coming across her desk. And then on March 3, 1991, a video of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers shook the nation. And Connie Rice declared war on the LAPD.
She won major lawsuits against the LAPD, but still police brutality was intensifying. She says at one point she even got a death threat from within the LAPD.
So fast forward to today and it’s kind of astonishing that Connie Rice now works with the LAPD. She’s currently training and supervising 50 police officers in one of the city’s toughest communities. Charles Monroe-Kane of Wisconsin Public Radio sat down with her to find out more.
“Charles Monroe-Kane: How do you change how cops think? Do you just sit down with cops, and sit in their car, and retrain them? That sounds so unrealistic to me.
“Connie Rice: Right, well first of all you talk to them about the thresholds. Why are you pulling anybody over? Is it just because you saw somebody black in an expensive car that you didn’t think they ought to be driving? Or did they really break a rule that needed to be enforced? So, it’s the threshold for pulling somebody over, the grounds for pulling somebody over.
“Then once you’ve pulled them over, the attitudes with which you address them. How polite you are—or impolite. They used to just speak to people in an awful tone. It was disrespectful. It was full of derision. It was very clear they were out to humiliate people. They would pull people out of their cars and throw them on the ground and prone them out for no reason. They didn’t care if you were in a business suit or in jeans. They would prone people out for absolutely no reason—there’s no reason to prone anybody out unless you are about to make an arrest. They weren’t going to arrest these people. They were just wanted to humiliate them.
“So you go over every single moment of the encounter with the public and you dissect it. And then you make them go through some practice session on how they’re going to change their behavior. You have to model it. You have to analyze it for them. You have to identify the problem. You have to analyze how you pick it apart and understand what they’re doing currently. Then you have to show them what you want them to move to. It’s painstaking and it’s painful, but that’s what it takes to reprogram your cop behavior.
“CMK: At one point, I think it was in an 18-month period, you interviewed personally over 900 police officers. What did they say?
“Connie Rice: They really opened up. They just did a download of all their thoughts and all their fears. And I would hear things like, ‘Look lady, I’m going to be honest with you. Black people scare me. I didn’t grow up around black people. I grew up in Antelope Valley. We didn’t have any blacks. And I don’t really know how to talk to them.’ Or, ‘Lady, black men scare me—and I need help.’ I was stunned…
“CMK: Do you think they were cognizant that their fear was creating a lot of the violence that was going on in L.A., from police to black men?
“Connie Rice: No, I don’t think they connected those dots. I think what they realized was that the level of discomfort with blacks meant they had to fix that, because they knew they weren’t interacting with people in a proper way…
I didn’t think that fear would be as big of an issue. I knew that unfamiliarity was an issue. I mean I’m just talking basic familiarity so that you don’t startle when a black man walks in the room. Or you don’t get that heightened heartbeat whenever you see black men.
“CMK: Charlie Beck, the LAPD chief, put you in charge of 50 officers. To train them, to supervise them. How did you integrate these ideas into their daily job?
“Connie Rice: Well, let me start by saying that you’re not going to be promoted by how many arrests you make, which comes as a shock to cops because that’s how most cops are promoted. I told these cops that you are not in the arrest business. You are a specialized unit that is in the trust-building business. And those cops looked at me like I had really lost my way.
“When I told them you are not going to get promoted based on the number of arrests, their eyes got big. I said, in fact, if you make any arrests for minor infractions, including drug infractions that don’t harm anybody else and involve no violence, you’re going to get dinged for that. You’re going to get demerits for that. I’m not interested in you dragging in black teenagers for selling a little bit of marijuana. I don’t care who’s getting high.
“And I said I don’t care if they’re doing small things. You are not to focus on that. That is not what we’re about, because that destroys trust. When you throw people on the ground and slap handcuffs on them for selling a couple of hand-rolled cigarettes, like Mr. [Eric] Garner [who died after NYPD used choke holds and put him face down], that just totally destroys trust in the police.
“CMK: How do you promote the 50 officers in your group? How are they promoted?
“Connie Rice: They have to demonstrate the relationships they have created with the community. And these are cops who every singe day go into that housing project and they figure out how to serve that population. They have bought 800 pairs of bifocals for the elders, who couldn’t afford them. They have brought in medical doctors with medical equipment in wagons to test for hypertension and diabetes. They have bought computers for those kids in school. You can’t even list all the services they did. They are building trust through service.
“And by doing that, they have completely won over these populations. These are hardcore, inner-city, public housing populations, who revere these cops because these cops have bent over backwards to serve them. And by serving them, they’re helping them to solve problems. And by helping them to solve problems, they’re helping them to solve crime.
“CMK: So crime has gone down? Crime has gone down in those neighborhoods?
“Connie Rice: Crime has plummeted. A 66 percent reduction in property crimes. A 90 percent reduction in physical crimes. I’ll tell you the statistic that bowled me—I had to sit down when I heard this one—there has not been a murder in Nickerson Gardens for three years. We used to have a body count weekly in Nickerson Gardens. And for there to be a three-year period with no murders, that’s like saying in a brothel there were no sex acts for three years.
“CMK: Anecdotally, you must converse with these officers. Is this a positive experience for them? Are they begrudgingly doing this, or are they like, ‘Oh my God, I love going to work. I love helping.’
“Connie Rice: Well, in the beginning it was definitely begrudging. It was like, ‘What the hell do these people have me doing? They are ruining my job.’ And then, when they starting seeing the public turn around and support them, and speak to them, and welcome them, introduce them to their kids. I mean, these cops have gotten standing ovations from public housing populations. It’s just stunning. I cannot tell you what a turnaround it has been…”
“Connie Rice: [About anger and rage in the black community] They should be angry. And they should be outraged. Now, anger and outrage feel good and sometimes they are a necessary outlets in response to an outrageous situation, which many of these shootings are. They are completely outrageous and completely unjustifiable. And if you are a relative of someone who’s been murdered under these circumstances, there is nothing that can contain your rage. I understand that. I completely get that. And once you have expressed that rage, you really have to ask yourself, ‘What’s gonna really prevent this from happening again?’
“Well, it isn’t gonna be rage. And it isn’t gonna be the marching, all of which I support. What’s going to change it is changing how cops think. So, here’s the deal. We either get in the boat and row with these cops or we are going to be marching forever. And there are going to be unjustified shootings forever…” (my emphases).
Hear the entire interview HERE.
So that’s it. That’s what I have been talking about.
That’s who and what police need to be.
That’s how policing will rebuild the trust that has been broken and move police out of the present crisis.
(Connie Rice’s book, Power Concedes Nothing One Womans Quest for Social Justice in America, from the Courtroom to the Kill Zones, describes these and other events in more detail).