Civil Rights Attorney Connie Rice on How She Got the LAPD To Change Its Culture of Violent Policing

(Editor’s note. What follows is a transcript of civil rights attorney, Connie Rice, telling Wisconsin Public Radio’s To The Best of Our Knowledge program how she helped to change the culture of violence inside the Los Angeles Police Department. Rice was among several experts interviewed for ‘Fearing The Other,’ an hourlong show that aired in December. The segment can be heard here and the unedited interview here.)


WPR host: 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.

Connie Rice: All that we were asking for was please don’t humiliate us. Please don’t pull us over for no reason. Please don’t beat us up for no reason. And LAPD was so brutral, and so gang-like back in those days, that they could not stop themselves from doing all of those things over and over and over again, in the black community. Mainly in the black community.

WPR host: Connie Rice won major lawsuits aginst the LAPD, but still police brutality was intensifying. She says at one polint 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 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.

I had to keep a stunned look off my face and I could not be judgmental. I had to sit there and listen and then I had to offer something helpful. Something helpful that told them, ‘Look, it is part of the human condition to be afraid of people you are not familar with. It’s also part of the human condition to be wary of people that you have never been around. So, let’s accept that are part of the human condition and let’s move on from there. Now, here’s some of the coping skills. Do you want to know how you break down the fear? You hang around with folks. You get to know them.’

You know, once you know somebody by their first name—even if it’s Pookie—and even if Pookie is a gang member, you know what, once you sit down and talk to Pookie, once you have breakfast with him every now and then, once you start hanging out with him and play basketball a couple of times a week with him, guess what? You’re going to become really relaxed around him and you’re not going to fear him anymore. Because really, while Pookie is a gang member, he’s not one of the bad guys, and you can begin to make those distinctions. And surely and slowly that’s how we did it.

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 wih blacks meant they had to fix that, because they knew they weren’t interacting with people in a proper way. They knew that much. They felt so uncomfortable that they actually voiced that fear. And it was enough to voice that fear. And I said, ‘Well, that’s what’s driving your discomfort. And your discomfort is leading to misunderstandings. And the misunderstandings lead to friction. And the friction leads to problems. So they got that much. But I don’t think that they connected the dots the way you and I would.

CMK: You say you were surprised, shocked, at how many times these men talked about being afraid of black men. Did you know that was the issue before you went into it, or were you really surprised that fear was such a big issue? 

Connie Rice: I didn’t think that fear would be as big of an issue. I knew that unfamilarity 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.

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 rediction 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 perios 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.

And so they can’t argue with those numbers. They may not like me. They may not like this—one gang officer who doesn’t like this model called it ‘women’s policing.’ And I said, ‘Well, guess what. Get your skirt on, because you’re getting ready to do it.’

CMK: How much more does this cost?

Connie Rice: If you talk about a gang murder, which has a lot of retaliation shootings that follow it, a gang murder can cost $1 million to $17 million for each murder—depending on how many retaliation shootings follow the original murder. If you look at the number of murders that have been reduced, the number of shootings that have been reduced, and you calculate the medical costs, and the rehabilitation costs, the prosecution costs, the imprisoning costs—if you count all of that up, this program has saved 100s of millions pf dollars for the city of Los Angeles.

CMK: This is so positive. And it’s such a powerful story. And I have been reading about it for days. But I can imaging that there are a lot of people I know who have read the grand jury transcripts of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. They have seen the video of a 12-year-old, Tamar Rice, playing with a toy gun and being shot. They can hear Eric Garner in their head gasping, ‘I can’t breathe.’ And they hear you saying you are not at war anymore and they want to go to war. What do you say to their anger?

Connie Rice: Oh, it’s completely understandable. And to be honest, I don’t begrudge it one bit. 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.

The question is what will change how cops behave, how they respond, and how they think? What will help them change? And that’s what we have to focus on. And that’s what I am about the business of doing.

(Editor’s note: 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).                  

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