Most Active Stories
Wed January 11, 2012
Connie Rice: Conscience Of The City
Originally published on Thu January 12, 2012 11:42 am
For years, civil rights attorney Constance Rice says, she would wake up every morning trying to figure out new ways to sue the Los Angeles Police Department into policing minority communities more fairly.
In her memoir, Power Concedes Nothing, Rice details how she went from the LAPD's antagonist to reformer, convincing police that they needed to court the backing and support of the city's African-American and Latino populations.
Relations between the attorney and the police force have warmed over the years: The LAPD even hosted Rice's book release party.
"It's pretty fitting that we have Connie's initial book-signing and presentation here. This is, in part, the house that Connie built," LAPD Chief Charlie Beck says.
When Rice began working at the Los Angeles office of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1991, she encountered the old LAPD, the lean, mean paramilitary machine made famous by Chief William Parker in the 1950s.
"For many years, the LAPD relationship with the African-American community was that of an occupation force: Us against them," says John Mack, former CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League and current vice president of the Police Commission. Mack worked closely with Rice on scores of abuse-of-power cases, challenging arbitrary stops and excessive force — a common occurrence in some parts of town.
In 1992, riots erupted in L.A. when a mostly white jury acquitted four policemen of beating black motorist Rodney King. Rice says the riots starkly illustrated the cost of having a police department that was constantly at war with its black and brown neighborhoods.
Rice had been groomed for this work since childhood. Her cousin, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, remembers the ethic both of them were raised with: "We were just expected to succeed, and expected to work hard, and I remember my parents had a saying, 'You had to be twice as good' — and it was just said as a matter of fact, not debate."
Rice's drive and discipline paid off as she and Beck worked together to change how L.A. was policed. Beck — and his predecessor William Bratton — gradually replaced all the old paramilitary hard-liners with new commanders who had a more expansive view of what policing entailed. He credits Rice with persuading key gang leaders to consider that the new method might save the youngest people in their communities and keep their mothers, wives and girlfriends safe.
The detente is not perfect — there are still police-community confrontations. But there seems to be more willingness to listen on both sides.
"To see the partnership with a woman like Connie Rice, with a parking space in our garage, and a person who considers the top staff of the department her partners — we've come a long, long way," says Stephen Downings, a retired deputy chief.
Beck agrees and admits, "When I met Connie 20 years ago, I thought of her as an adversary to the department, as someone who did not have my best interests at heart. Now she is a partner, an adviser and a friend. And the conscience of the city."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There's a new memoir out, highlighting major changes in the Los Angeles Police Department. The first thing we should tell you about this book is it was not written by a cop. It's called "Power Concedes Nothing," and it's written by civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who spent the last 20 years suing the L.A.PD.
You want to know what the police thought of her book. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates will tell you.
KAREN GRISBY BATES, BYLINE: For two decades, civil rights lawyer Connie Rice was a thorn in the side of the Los Angeles Police Department. Actually, make that backside.
CONNIE RICE: I woke up every day, trying to figure out a new way to sue the L.A.PD and the L.A. County Sheriff's, because they were such a negative, and humiliating, and emasculating force in the black and brown communities.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)
BATES: So it's a little psychedelic to see her here, in the belly of the LAPD's gleaming new police building, where the police chief is hosting a book party for her. And cops - active, retired, uniformed and plainclothes - are lining up for her to sign copies of her new book, "Power Concedes Nothing."
The book is Rice's account of how she and the department came to terms with each other in an effort to make L.A. safer and saner for all of its citizens.
CHIEF CHARLIE BECK: Richard, how are you?
RICHARD: How are you? And Happy New Year.
BECK: Happy New Year.
BATES: As he welcomed everyone to Rice's party, Chief Charlie Beck admitted Rice and the LAPD had not always been friends. But he said their relationship has evolved into a solid partnership. The new police headquarters, with its open courtyards and big glass walls, is far friendlier than the old one. Beck told the crowd it's reflective of Rice's urging that the LAPD make itself more approachable to the community.
BECK: This is, in part, a house that Connie built.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
BATES: There was a lot of chuckling over the irony: This prim, steely woman, with her perpetually raised eyebrow, has spent so much time suing her hosts in the past. But somewhere along the way, Connie Rice and the LAPD became friends.
RICE: I'm so biased at this point, that I've completely lost all my impartiality. And Chief Bratton has achieved his goal. I can no longer sue the Los Angeles Police Department.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RICE: But to tell you the truth, I don't want to. I don't need to.
BATES: When she began working at the Los Angeles office of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1991, Rice ran into the old LAPD; the lean, mean policing machine Chief William Parker made famous in the '50s, and his hand-picked protégé Daryl Gates made infamous in the '80s and '90s.
RICE: It was a very good paramilitary, intimidation, policing culture - but it was also racist.
BATES: Case in point: The 1992 riots, sparked when four LAPD officers were acquitted of viciously beating black driver Rodney King. Rice believes the riots were a reaction to this kind of suppressive policing.
Here, KNBC reports the chaos.
(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: After 24 hours of seemingly unending violence in the city of Los Angeles, the toll of death and destruction is absolutely staggering. At least 17 people dead at last count, close to 500 injured and well over a thousand...
RICE: After the 1992 riots, I think the curtain on our joint alienation - it rose just a bit.
BATES: Rice is sitting in the offices of the Advancement Project, a nonprofit she co-founded to address barriers to opportunity. Her windows in the Echo Park neighborhood have sweeping views of where poor, mostly immigrant L.A. meets hipster L.A. After the riots, Rice bluntly told city leaders what would happen if the city's poor neighborhoods continued to be ignored by its better-off residents.
RICE: Understand that if we leave these children trapped in these Petri dishes from hell: where they can't learn, they're exposed to violence, they're exposed into gangs, and the gangs run things, guess what, ladies and gentlemen? That threat is going to come out of those communities, like a cat out of a bag, at us.
BATES: That obligation to ensure the entire community's well-being was something that was drummed into Rice from birth. Her parents believed education would be a potent weapon in the fight for equality.
RICE: You learned three words by the time you were one and a half or two. The first one was mommy. The second one was daddy. And the third word was college.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BATES: Phillip and Anna Rice raised Connie and her brothers Norman and Phillip Jr. throughout the U.S. and abroad. Colonel Phillip Rice was one of the few black career officers in the United States Air Force. Anna supervised hours of homework and instilled proper behavior. The Rice parents, like a lot of their black middle-class peers, were rigorously preparing their children to excel in a world that often believed black excellence was an oxymoron.
RICE: It's not the Tiger Mom to Tiger Parent kind of thing. You're swathed in love, you're cherished, the love is unconditional but the expectations are also unconditional.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BATES: Those values run in the family. Connie's cousin, Condoleezza Rice, remembers being raised the same way.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We were just expected to succeed and we were expected to work hard. And I remember my parents and their friends all had a saying: You have to be twice as good. And it was just said as a matter of fact, not debate.
BATES: The cousins are about the same age, with the same quick minds and brisk speech. But the former Secretary of State says there is one major difference between them.
RICE: I'm not really, actually, quite as driven as Connie.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BATES: That's debatable, but Connie Rice is driven. Work seems to be her recreation. And she is relentless about bringing the LAPD and the communities it polices closer together for the entire city's benefit.
RICE: Part of the story of this book is that incredible journey of how we worked with the sued LAPD, and then worked with them, to get them to understand their interests were at a change. Their future in L.A. meant that they had to have the backing of these minority communities.
BATES: Both Rice and Police Chief Charlie Beck believed how the city was policed had to be changed. Beck and his predecessor, William Bratton, gradually replaced the old paramilitary hard-liners with new commanders who had a more expansive view of what policing entailed. He says Rice worked hard to get key gang leaders to consider that the new method might save the youngest people in their communities, and keep their mothers, wives and girlfriends safe.
BECK: They want a police department that's fair. And they want a police department that's effective. And just being one or the other is not enough, you have to be both. And Connie has helped us to be seen as a police department that is fair.
BATES: Most of the time. It's not perfect. There are still police community confrontations, but there seems to be more willingness to listen, on both sides.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)
BATES: Back down at the book party, Rice is working on other things that need fixing, even as she continues to sign books.
RICE: The MTA case, the 209 race, all that stuff...
BATES: And it's clear that while tonight was a celebration of Connie Rice and her book, it was also a celebration of the LAPD. It's a coming-out party, of sorts, for the department's rebirth as a 21st century institution. And it's an acknowledgement that Rice, who Beck often calls the city's moral compass, has been critical to that effort.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.