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A Bear Trap 

Civil-rights lawyer Connie Rice takes on Rampart

Thursday, Jun 5 2003
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To date, four separate investigations have examined the Rampart scandal. In February, LAPD Chief William Bratton announced that the issue needed yet one more look after the so-called after-action reports long promised by former Chief Bernard Parks were deemed all but worthless. Last week, the Police Commission named civil rights attorney Connie Rice to head the fifth Rampart inquiry. The Weekly’s CELESTE FREMON caught up with Rice at her office last week.

 

L.A. WEEKLY: As an attorney who’s won a number of significant lawsuits against the LAPD, you are a fairly interesting choice to head this new Rampart panel.

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CONNNIE RICE: Well, I know that a lot of people are looking at the Police Commission as if they’ve lost their minds for hiring me. In fact, initially when I was asked, I said no.

 

What changed your position?

I called a whole bunch of people and asked if anything could be accomplished by a new inquiry. And if so, would they help? Or would they sabotage it? The reaction I got from cops was that they were reluctant to see Rampart opened again, but they also felt it needed to be done because the same mistakes are being made in the department right now. So, I gave the Police Commission three conditions under which I’d take the position, and they agreed to all of them.

 

And the conditions were . . .?

They have to give me every document I ask for; the panel has to have subpoena power; and the chief has to offer immunity when necessary.

As opposed to Bernard Parks, who refused to give anyone immunity in the first Rampart investigation, thereby effectively sandbagging it.

Yeah. Immunity is critical. Anyway, they agreed to everything.

 

For many, “Rampart” has become a code word for the abuses that occurred departmentwide in the city’s minority communities: planting evidence, excessive use of force — all the stuff that former Deputy Chief David Dotson has described as “expediency corruption . . .”

That’s why we’ll be looking at the whole system, the whole culture. We want to examine if the mindset that allowed this behavior has changed. Of course, some cops want significant change. Others don’t. So we need to bring the discussion between those two polarized camps out in the open. In the past, the argument has always occurred behind a wall of silence.

 

Speaking of walls of silence, your law practice is currently made up mostly of whistleblower cops, is it not?

I call it my “Serpico” practice. I represent cops who are either whistleblowers or the targets of a hostile policing culture — like women cops and minority cops.

 

What insights have those “Serpico” cases given you that might help in the Rampart inquiry?

I’ve learned what’s most effective in changing the system. In the past, I used to have clients who were the targets of police abuse, people who’d gotten beaten up by the cops, kids who’d been mauled by police dogs. But, I found when you go into court with a client who isn’t viewed as anything but a gang member, or someone from a poor community, you have no capacity to demand policy change. The judges won’t hear it. Juries don’t pay attention. But if you walk into court with a cop as your client, you can ask for something entirely different, because the cop has a different kind of status. I could spend the rest of my life defending victims of police abuse, and nothing inside the department would really change. If they lose a verdict, the brass simply writes the check and views it as the cost of doing business. People have been suing the police for 100 years, and it doesn’t make a dent. I’ve learned the only people who can change police culture are cops.

 

Do think Chief Bratton will make a measurable dent?

I think he’s sincere in wanting to chart a new course for the LAPD. And I know if you make the case to him in a way that he can hear it, he won’t ignore it. I just don’t know him well enough yet to know how far he’ll go. But leadership really matters. Under Sheriff Baca, the county’s liability payouts for police abuse have gone from $20 million a year to $2 million. I mean, he’s got ex–civil rights lawyers doing simultaneous investigations. At LAPD you can’t even get the inspector general to do simultaneous investigations. They don’t want anybody looking over their shoulders. I’m telling you, Baca’s 30 years ahead of nearly everyone else in law enforcement.

 

What qualities do you think you bring to the new Rampart panel that’ll make it more effective than the previous four investigations?

Well, I think I have a perspective that most civil rights lawyers don’t have. And that’s basically the fact that we put cops in an impossible position. By “we” I mean the voters, the general society. We have a bargain with the police that requires a containment model of policing.

 

Explain what you mean by “containment model.”

The political thesis of containment policing is that there’s a group that is really not a part of the mainstream, and it’s important to make sure they stay within their barriers. That’s the politics of [Bill Parker’s] Thin Blue Line. The cops are the ones who stand between us — the civilized, privileged people who are part of the mainstream — and them — the people who are on the prison track, who live in the housing projects, who work two and three jobs but who are never going to get ahead, the folks who are economically written out of the American contract.

As one cop said to me, “Look, lady. Are you crazy? You expect me to commune with a kid that society won’t house, clothe, feed, educate or medicate? You’ve told me to keep him out of your house and keep him away from your children. You don’t really want to know what it takes for me to do that. But as long as I don’t get caught on videotape, you’re quite happy not to know. But when I get caught on videotape doing your bidding, then I get punished.”

 

Then we, as good liberals, are “shocked, shocked!”

Yep. It’s a very cynical and cowardly posture that we take. Yet we still don’t acknowledge that this is the real nut of the problem. And then, layered on top of it all, is the fact that LAPD doesn’t have enough officers. If you don’t have enough cops to exert the power you need to appropriately carry out a police function, you amplify. You swoop in, do pre- emptive strikes, you round up and suppress. The occupying-force mentality of policing takes over because there aren’t enough cops to do much else. Now, that doesn’t excuse bad behavior. It just suggests that the context is complex.

 

So, if you were queen of L.A., you’d make the City Council give the LAPD the money it wants for reorganization and for 320 additional officers?

I’d give them the money on the condition that they retrain the way they police.

 

What’s your best-case outcome for the panel’s investigation?

Implementation of our recommendations. I told the commission I wouldn’t do a report that just sits there. We’ve got four of those already. But [commission head] Rick Caruso assured me it will be implemented. And I think I have enough of the confidence of the various groups to get people to talk honestly — in part because the other investigations were trying to get people indicted. We’re not.

 

What does Chief Bratton want from this panel?

The same as what I want: a road map, a tool that’ll help him navigate his way out of this, that’ll keep him from making the same mistakes in the future.

 

Do you see any bigtime bear traps ahead of you in the process?

Are you kidding? The whole thing is a bear trap!

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