LA Civil Rights Leader On Police Brutality, Protests: We're In The Last Battles Of The Civil War

(Josie Huang/LAist)

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Connie Rice has spent decades working to chip away at the systemic racism that has manifested itself with painful clarity, most recently, in the tragic death of George Floyd and in the lopsided toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color.

Rice is a civil rights lawyer and founding co-director of the Advancement Project who has worked with the Los Angeles Police Department and outside groups on police reform. (Full disclosure: she's also a trustee of our parent organization, Southern California Public Radio.)

Rice spoke with KPCC AirTalk host Larry Mantle on Sunday evening — the fifth night of protests sparked by Floyd's death at the hands of a Minnesota police officer. She told Mantle that the outrage felt by demonstrators is not just about Floyd, "it's about 400 years of events."

The following is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

RICE: For the officers, they see it as just one incident, many see it as a rogue officer. To the community, however, policing is simply an extension — it's the interface of the systemic oppression that slaves, freed Africans, freed African Americans, and now African Americans today have lived under.

And you're talking about an overlay of a COVID pandemic that has stripped away the mask and revealed the deep, savage inequalities that are fueling the rage.

"The longest American war is the American Civil War, and we're fighting the last battles of the American Civil War right now."

It's not just the outrageous murder that we've seen. We've seen 50 videos of unarmed African Americans, mostly men, being gunned down without any kind of evidence that that lethal force was warranted under the standards of law.

I have to say, I was with [L.A. Police] Chief [Michel] Moore and about 15 other chiefs from around the country, it was New York, LAPD, it was New Orleans, it was Baltimore ... and these are the progressive chiefs, these are the chiefs of police who understand that American policing has to change and they have actually dedicated their 10 years as chiefs doing everything they can to turn their departments away from instruments of oppression and mass incarceration, and more in the direction of providing safety in poor communities ....

But in that room, I stood up and I said, "I want to thank you for pushing policing in the right direction. We've just made a turn, and a turn is not a journey completed, it is just the work begun. But I need to thank you for that.

"I also need to tell you that the abject failure of the profession to address the anguish and the agony and the deep, deep fury over these videos is going to come back at you like a nuclear blowback.

"I'm not asking you to interfere with the investigations or the due process of officers. But there is a way to state that 'We, as police, understand what these videos mean, they upset us. We can't imagine what it does to the community members and the family members.'"

That's all they had to say. But they didn't.

Today, they are putting out statements condemning, outright condemning, and so are police unions. But it's way too little, too late.

And I think that what we're seeing, 30,000 feet up, to me we're seeing ... they say that the longest war is the war on terror in Afghanistan. No.

The longest American war is the American Civil War, and we're fighting the last battles of the American Civil War right now.

A boy holds a sign during a protest in downtown Los Angeles, Friday, May 29, 2020, over the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis. (Christian Monterrosa/AP)
MANTLE: [You] were at the center of the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, the Christopher Commission that dove so deep into systemic problems within the LAPD and dramatic changes that you've talked about when you've been on the air with us that have taken place in the department. As you look at LAPD now, what's changed? And what, in your view, still needs to change?

RICE: I think as far as the big police departments in the country go, LAPD has done far more than I ever thought it would do. And when I write pieces that say 'this is not your grandfather's LAPD' to the community, I sound like I need my medication.

[But] the changes in the police world are seismic. They accept civilian rule. They now allow the inspectors general to actually enforce accountability. Instead of doing automatic exonerations of police officers who are accused of serious abuse, there's an actual investigation.

These are seismic changes. You have chiefs, you've had [William] Bratton, [Charles] Beck and now Moore all dedicated to turning policing away from the mass incarceration, stop and frisk, persecution that has devastated poor communities, not made them safer, but simply devastated them.

"Even the [police] who want to change have no idea how to re-engineer their incentives, how to re-engineer their mission, how to re-engineer and restructure what and how they do with different people."

And to get out of the prison industrial complex of policies, and try to turn police to being more productive problem-solvers in poor communities. These are the chiefs we've had, and we've been lucky. But all of that said, in the community, it doesn't mean a thing.

In Police World, it's seismic. In the community, it doesn't register at all. Because why should you give anybody credit for actually doing an honest investigation?

The worlds are so far apart, and I've been straddling them for the last 15 years and I'm about stretched at this point. I know what it takes: you can sue, and we're real good at that. You can get consent decrees. You can do protests. You can riot. You can get commissions. You can have all kinds of civilian action.

All of that is necessary. But none of it changes police thinking or behavior. That work requires police to change themselves with the help of outsiders.

Because what I discovered is that the police don't know how to change.

Even the ones who want to change have no idea how to re-engineer their incentives, how to re-engineer their mission, how to re-engineer and restructure what and how they do with different people.

Armored vehicles and police arrive at 5th and Colorado in Santa Monica on May 31, 2020. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

MANTLE: Is there a department that you would say is an example that's been able to do it? Or do you contend that within the culture of policing there isn't any example of that shift? Is this just something that's an impasse because of the nature of policing?

RICE: We've actually done it in L.A. with the Community Safety Partnership unit.

But it's a large demonstration unit, it has not changed the DNA of the rank and file for LAPD. Their mission is still the same.

I've always said that you can't change policing until you change their mission. We get the policing we asked for. We've empowered the police through laws that give them almost absolute immunity at this point.

And ... it's such a rigged system for exoneration that it's given them a license to kill without accountability. That has to end. You cannot have police investigating each other. You can't have prosecutors who work with them, trying to decide whether to prosecute them. You can't prosecute your teammates, it just doesn't work.

So there needs to be a whole revolutionary change of the legal paradigm that governs police accountability, number one.

On the culture side and mindset side and outlook side of how cops think about the kind of policing they do in different neighborhoods, the profiling doesn't necessarily take place at the individual level, I've always said, it takes place at the neighborhood level.

"I've always said that you can't change policing until you change their mission. We get the policing we asked for."

And because we are so self-segregated, that's the legacy of us continuing to fight our Civil War. We can outlaw slavery and then we reinstitute it as "slavery light" and then we do it with mass incarceration.

We can outlaw segregation, legal segregation, but then as soon as an area becomes 8% black, white people move out. So we have self-imposed segregation.

We are still working through the machinery and the dynamics and the culture of white dominance and white supremacy. And all of that effect gets quadrupled and quintupled when you're talking about policing, because police are the control mechanism for the policies that we tell them to do.

We tell police, 'you're the thin blue line.' And there are good communities on the good side of the thin blue line, communities like mine, where people receive safety and protection. And then there are the communities of my clients: the underclass, the poor, the working poor, immigrants, people who are on the wrong side of the thin blue line, they get suppression containment.

They don't get safety, they get enforcement and they get a savage machinery of mass incarceration.

"We built skyscrapers instead of dealing with our poor communities and putting rungs back into the upward mobility ladder."

We're not going to invest in the schools. The McCone Commission [formed in response to the 1965 Watts Rebellion] said you've got to end the spiral of despair and change your policing. Well, since 1965, Larry, we've been working on the policing side, but absolutely nothing has been done on ending the spiral of despair side.

We haven't invested in public health infrastructure. The COVID pandemic shows us that we've basically said that poor people, people in prisons, poor people in nursing homes, you know, where there's no public health infrastructure, there's no access to health care, those gaps haven't been closed.

The McCone Commission said if you want to stop riots, you have to change how your police interface with poor people, number one, and people of color and black people, in particular. And you also have to end the spiral of despair. You have to end the deserts, the opportunity deserts, the food deserts, the education deserts.

So you don't do both of those things — change policing and the spiral of despair, as the McCone Commission put it — we fail.

We built skyscrapers instead of dealing with our poor communities and putting rungs back into the upward mobility ladder. We've spent the last 60 years removing the rungs of the upward mobility ladder. We have defunded all of the public systems that support upward mobility for the poor.

Protesters chant and raise their fists while blocking traffic on a street corner in Santa Monica, Calif., Sunday, May 31, 2020, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. (Richard Vogel/AP)

MANTLE: Black Lives Matter activists have argued that in the fiscal crisis Los Angeles is facing that cuts need to be in the LAPD, not in the community programs that, at this point, are on the chopping block or at least to be significantly cut back. Do you agree with that argument?

RICE: I agree that the county budget and the city budget have got to be completely redone to address post-pandemic crises.

We're facing Great Depression threats here. And the civilization is not going to make it through this if our politicians don't stop the business as usual.

MANTLE: I guess I was wondering in the wake of what's going on these past three nights, do you think realistically that the LAPD would have a budget cut, given what we're going through?

"You need to figure out: how do you reconfigure LAPD to produce safety as opposed to automated enforcement that feeds mass incarceration?"

RICE: I think that everybody's budgets have got to be on the line. And I think we have to look at how the money is being spent and what it's producing, and how it can be redeployed to meet these new crises. And LAPD is not an exception. But it has to be every department.

LAPD takes close to half of the city's budget. And I've been arguing for 25 years that what we do with that money ... instead of producing fodder for mass incarceration and mass arrests and mass stops, it has to produce safety. It has to solve the problems that actually produce crime. And that's a very different mission for policing.

So, that funding, you know, right now it's all in salaries. And that's how it's been structured.

You need to figure out: how do you reconfigure LAPD to produce safety as opposed to automated enforcement that feeds mass incarceration?

MANTLE: At this point, given what we're in in this moment this evening, what do you think would bring some degree of calm?

RICE: I think that if the other officers in Minnesota are arrested, then it may end, or at least grand juries are formed to determine whether they ought to be indicted. That might help.

I also think that showing people that it can be done. LAPD has done it with the Community Safety Partnership policing. ... If you have policing that black gangsters say is good, you've got something.

A demonstrator at the candlelight vigil against police violence in front of Pasadena City Hall, May 31, 2020. (Aaron Schrank)

MANTLE: These are officers moving into housing projects?

RICE: They're not promoted for making arrests. They are promoted for going into housing project communities and saying 'we're going to do a wraparound safety plan. We're not here to arrest, we are here to go after the conditions that produce crime and misery. We will arrest for violent crimes, but we are here to build, not to arrest.'

And so they actually partner with housing project residents and other residents of high crime areas that are experiencing epidemics of violence and epidemics of gang control. And you work with everybody from the gang members to the grandmothers, and you create wraparound safety plans.

And it's about safety. It's not about containment, suppression and mass incarceration. So these are the cops who are rewarded for avoiding arrest, avoiding use of force.

"If you have policing that black gangsters say is good, you've got something."

In nine years, there has been no use of force by CSP cops and not one complaint.

And in the interviews, even when the Dorner matter was happening, when the LAPD was being targeted, you had African American gang members who when they realized CSP officers were getting targeted, they went to protect those officers.

When you have that happening, you have the policing for 21st century America. You have the policing that will make sure that the riots that we're seeing today and the uprisings we're seeing today are no longer necessary.

MANTLE: I hear a significant gap between what you're describing and what we heard yesterday at Pan Pacific Park when Melina Abdullah of Black Lives Matter got up and and talked about every one of the officers that were there and talking about them as individuals, not what they represent as an institution, as essentially being bad because of the job they do. Your thoughts about that stance?

RICE: If their job is the old mission of containment, suppression, mass incarceration, I agree with her. If the job is helping the community solve its problems, heal, and put the rungs back in the upward mobility ladder, so that safety is the goal — that's what [the Community Safety Partnership] unit does, but it is not what all of LAPD does.

"So if you ask 'can police change?' the answer is absolutely yes. Can they become a positive force in even poor black communities? The answer is yes."

The leadership mindset has changed. But if you're talking about the old sergeants that are in the back of the squad room, the graveyard shift, no, they haven't gotten the memo yet. A lot of work to be done.

But Larry, my point is we know how to do this. We've done it. It's not on a white paper. We've done it for nine years, and it's documented.

So if you ask 'can police change?' the answer is absolutely yes. Can they become a positive force in even poor black communities? The answer is yes. And we've done it and we've proved it.

Doesn't mean it is now the DNA of LAPD. It is not. It has to become department-wide. Those values have to become department-wide. And we have to be comfortable telling LAPD: 'your mission has changed.'

Until you change the mission, you're not going to get changed policing. It aggravates, it accumulates, Larry, and it produces dynamics that get toxic. That's what we saw in that video.

The license to kill now has no accountability infrastructure. As long as that's the case, you're going to continue to see these videos and you're going to continue to see the protests. We know how to fix this, Larry. We just have to get the political will to do it.

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