Connie Rice: She fixed the LA cops, but can she unite Seattles elected leaders?
  • DH
  • She reformed the LA cops, but can she unite Seattle's elected leaders?

Connie Rice is among the preeminent American leaders who can fix broken police departments, and she was in Seattle recently, working for the city, to figure out if she can help us meet the terms of a federal decree to reform the Seattle Police Department. She’s sued the LAPD—most famously—along with the NYPD and departments in New Orleans, Chicago, and a half-dozen other cities.

The first question for Seattle is whether we’re worthy of Rice's help (you may recall that Rick Braziel, a leading candidate for police chief in 2010, bowed out of the nomination after a few days visiting Seattle). Rice says she won't sign a contract until she determines if we’re even capable of remedy—if the political divisions are so deep-seated, as she puts it, that “the politics can preclude the healing.”

“I need to understand the factions,” Rice told me after her first day of interviews with community groups, the mayor, and cops. She says a court order approved by US District Court judge James Robart last month to remedy patterns of excessive force and racial bias in policing is "just a document." Before the city can make cultural changes, everyone involved—the mayor, council, city attorney, beat cops, community groups, etc.—must decide that “you all want to jump off the cliff together.”

Of course, those officials are reluctant to do anything together. After the US Department of Justice blasted the city last December with allegations of unconstitutional policing, Mayor Mike McGinn, City Attorney Pete Holmes, and three city council's relations were so acrimonious that—and they all share blame for this—they literally couldn't even stay in the room to craft a response. They fractured into a passive-aggressive battle of letters leaked to the press. "We are going to have to get over that stuff," Rice says. But she's not pessimistic. "If it can be done in LA, it can be done here. I think that Seattle's different offices will learn to carry out this decree jointly because that is what professionals do. The key to this process is everyone in the boat rowing in the same direction," Rice explains, "and that is what we have to show the court."

Like I said, Rice isn't all that familiar with our elected professionals.

Sitting opposite each other, Rice and I talked across a sprawling conference table with 20 empty seats in mayor's office, and she delved into American policing models as a proxy for controlling slaves, the problem with right-wing police unions, and how cops are afraid of getting murdered on the streets.

Rice wrote a book called Power Concedes Nothing about her legal and political advocacy for civil rights. What does she mean by that title, in reference to police departments? "Police don't concede power because they think it means weakness, and weakness can actually get you killed," begins Rice, who is—it must be mentioned—the cousin of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "I love that slogan because it's honest; nobody is goign to change unless you show them how the change is good for them and you demand the change."

Police departments of modern America are derived from an anachronistic model, she goes on. "Our legacy is what we used on slave plantations." She calls it "containment suppression."

"Police are not part of these communities. They see these communities as vectors for violence and danger." She pauses. "I have studied this in college and I have not lost my medications."

What is the root of our cultural problem within the SPD? I ask if she thinks it's it the city's police union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which calls leaders of the Race and Social Justice Initiative "the enemy" and jokes about shooting African American leaders and the ACLU. Rice doesn't know about our police union yet, she says, but she's known many police unions. "My personal experience is that police unions are the last to change, but they will change. If LA's Police Protective League can change, anyone can change."

As Seattle enters into the decree with the US Department of Justice, a process begins that erodes a sense of us-versus-them, she says. "The police should feel safer in there communities, and these communities should feel safe enough to call the police to help."

Rice doesn't have a contract, she hasn't seen a list of candidates to be the court monitor, and, as for her long-term role with the city, she says, "I am on a listening tour to define that role." But assuming she stays, we may be getting to know Rice very well. "Strap on your seat belts and get comfortable, because this can be a long process," she says. In the next months and years, Seattle will be selecting a monitor to report to the court, finding a compliance coordinator, establishing a policing commission, auditing its policies and data-collection methods from top to bottom, and muscling through a cultural change from the chief to the stubborn cop union.

But the hardest part may be getting our divided city leaders to get over their bullshit.

"It will require people who used to fight each other to get into boat and row together—the warring should be over. The fighting should be over."