Civil Rights Attorney On How She Built Trust With Police | KUOW News and Information

Civil Rights Attorney On How She Built Trust With Police

Dec 5, 2014
Originally published on December 7, 2014 4:50 am

As a civil rights attorney, Constance Rice became known in the 1990s for, as she puts it, going to war with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Rice filed lawsuits against the department, mainly over their treatment of minorities in underprivileged communities.

Following the recent decisions not to indict white cops in the deaths of two black men — President Obama has said one of his top priorities is building trust between minority communities and local police.

Rice's time battling the LAPD, and specifically captain Charlie Beck, who is now LA's police chief, eventually led to a place where there could be trust. They worked together to reform the department.

Some of that change included LAPD officers going into projects to set up youth sports programs and health screenings, things that made people's lives better and brought police and predominantly black communities closer together.

Here are some interview highlights:

On use of police force on minorities:

Cops can get into a state of mind where they're scared to death. When they're in that really, really frightened place they panic and they act out on that panic. I have known cops who haven't had a racist bone in their bodies and in fact had adopted black children, they went to black churches on the weekend; and these are white cops. They really weren't overtly racist. They weren't consciously racist. But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? They had fear. They were afraid of black men. I know a lot of white cops who have told me. And I interviewed over 900 police officers in 18 months and they started talking to me, it was almost like a therapy session for them I didn't realize that they needed an outlet to talk.

They would say things like, "Ms. Rice I'm scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I'm really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they've got great hulk strength and I'm afraid they're going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men." I mean this is cops who are 6'4". You know, the cop in Ferguson was 6'4" talking about he was terrified. But when cops are scared, they kill and they do things that don't make sense to you and me.

On whether or not racism plays a factor in police force:

He doesn't feel like it's racism. The black community experiences it as racism, that's very clear. So what I'm saying is that for people who have to be in the business of solving this dilemma you have to be able to step into the frightened tennis shoes of black kids; black male kids in particular. You have to be able to step into the combat boots and scared cops, and racist cops, and cruel cops, and good cops. You have to be able to distinguish between all of those human experiences and bring them together. On a single platform of we're going to solve this by empathizing. We're going to solve it with compassion and we're going to solve it with common sense.

On whether improving life in poor neighborhoods causes police to be less fearful:

Not only does it cause cops to be less fearful, it causes the community to embrace them. I have taken a group of 50 cops and the chief (Charlie) Beck let me train them. I trained them in what I community partnership policing. The first thing I tell these cops is that you are not in the arrest business; you are in the trust business. We are going to train you in Public Trust Policing. It goes beyond community policing. What it does is it puts police in a position of helping a community solve its problems. These cops come into the black housing projects and they said to these populations who hate them "We know you hate us, but we're here to serve. We're going to win your trust."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People in Washington, D.C., were chanting last night, if I can't breathe, you can't breathe. They were, of course, expressions of anger over the death of Eric Garner. He died after a New York police officer applied a hold around his neck during an arrest. Video caught Garner gasping, I can't breathe. Garner was black. The officer is white. And on Wednesday, a grand jury declined to press charges. We've been tracking the protests around the country from Oakland to Chicago to New York.

TRACY ROBINSON: If you're grabbing someone and they say, I can't breathe, I can't breathe, logic says I remove my arm or my hand from around their throat unless I'm trying to murder them.

INSKEEP: That was Tracy Robinson in New York. The mayor of New York City is calling for changes. On WQHT radio yesterday, Bill de Blasio said his police commissioner intends to change police culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: He said we're going to retrain every police officer in how to work differently with the community and how to de-escalate and how to wait for backup before confronting a situation. We'll use less force whenever possible. You're talking about something that changes the nature of things when you train everyone in a whole different philosophy.

INSKEEP: That's what the Los Angeles Police Department has tried to do. The LAPD had to. It was hit by many brutality lawsuits in the 1990s. Civil rights attorney Constance Rice helped to lead that effort. She called it going to war with the LAPD, a tactic she has now rethought.

CONSTANCE RICE: War doesn't solve anything. It may put up a defense, it may slow down the cops, it may make them pay a small price or sometimes even a big price. It's good for all of that. I'm not saying don't sue; that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that the lawsuits are limited in their reach.

INSKEEP: Rice says a better path came later. That's when police officers in Los Angeles set up youth sports programs and bought computers for school kids. These efforts improved people's lives in a measurable way and brought police together with predominantly black communities. My colleague David Greene spoke with Constance Rice. One question is whether she thought racism played a role in the death of Eric Garner and before that the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri?

RICE: The racism calculation, I can't make that until I talk to the cops. So between you and me, do I suspect that racism is possible? Yes, I suspect it's possible. Do I know that it happened? No. It may have happened as a result of an overzealous and overly physical reaction to a situation. There may not have been a racist thought in the cop's mind.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

But you say you see something familiar - a familiar war. If it's not necessarily racism, if it could be something that is warlike in the absence of racism, define the war for me.

RICE: Well, you know, cops can get into a state of mind, David, where they're scared to death. They panic, and they act out on that panic. I have known cops who didn't have a racist idea in their bodies and in fact had adopted black children. They went to black churches on the weekend. I mean, these are white cops. They weren't consciously racist. But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? You want to know what they had in their minds? They had fear. They were afraid of black men.

I know a lot of white cops who have told me - and I interviewed over 900 police officers in 18 months - and they started talking to me - it was almost like a therapy session for them. I didn't realize they needed an outlet to talk. They would tell me things that just left my mouth hanging open. Ms. Rice, can I tell you something? Yes, you can tell me something. You won't use it against me? No, I won't use it against you. And they would say things like, Ms. Rice, I'm scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I'm really scared of them. You know, black men who come out of prison, they've got great Hulk strength, and I'm afraid they're going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men? I mean, this is cops who are 6-feet, 6-foot-4. You know, the cop in Ferguson was 6-foot-4 talking about how he was terrified. But when cops are scared, David, they kill. And they do things that don't make sense to you and me.

GREENE: I could hear some people listening to a police officer say, I'm afraid of black men and would label that profiling, if not racist.

RICE: Yes. And they wouldn't be wrong. But here's what I'm saying - in that cop's mind, he doesn't feel a racist thing in his body. He doesn't feel like it's racism. The black community experiences it as racism. That's very clear. So what I'm saying is that for people who have to be in the business of solving this dilemma, you have to be able to step into the frightened tennis shoes of black kids - black male kids in particular. You have to be able to step into the combat boots of scared cops and racist cops and cruel cops and good cops. And you have to be able to distinguish amongst all of those human experiences and then bring them together on a single platform that of we're going to solve this by empathizing. We are going to solve it with compassion, and we're going to solve it with common sense.

GREENE: I've read comments from you where you talk about how important it is to make life better in poor, urban neighborhoods. Is improving life in poor neighborhoods - does that somehow cause police officers to be less fearful, or what is the evolution that happens?

RICE: Yes, not only does it cause cops to be less fearful, it causes the community to embrace them. I have taken a group of 50 cops. I train them in what I call community partnership policing. And the first thing I tell these cops is you are not in the arrest business; you are in the trust business. We are going to train you in public trust policing. It goes beyond community policing, David. It puts police in a position of helping the community solve its problems. These cops come into the black housing projects, and they said to these populations who hate them, we know you hate us, but we're here to serve. We're going to win your trust.

INSKEEP: Civil rights attorney Constance Rice, co-founder of the Advancement Project, talking with David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.