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Communities Struggle To Bridge The Divide Between Police And Citizens


Beyond the specifics of any one protest or any one deadly incident, is a big national discussion of how to change relations between communities and police. And this morning we have a surprising argument given the news of the past week. It's an argument that, by some measures, relations are improving. Constance Rice is an attorney and activist in Los Angeles who once challenged the LA Police Department over police brutality. She is also a member of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Had you thought you were making progress before last week?

CONSTANCE RICE: Well, I don't just think it. I know we're making progress. What you have to be able to analyze at 10,000 feet up is why. Why are we always in this position? It's because we have set up a dynamic, especially in poor communities, where we ask our cops to contain and suppress those communities. And when you used to go down to a community like Watts - because there's a real success in Watts that shows the way out of this - they have a completely different kind of policing now. But if you went back even 15 years ago, you'd have found the containment suppression and outright warfare.

INSKEEP: OK. You said that that's what it was but that it's different now. So what has changed in recent years in Los Angeles?

RICE: Well, in Los Angeles, as in Dallas and I would say Cincinnati, for example, there are some large policing jurisdictions that, for the last 15 years, have been about the business of changing the mindset of their officers - changing the political mandate that they have when they go into poor communities. That relationship can no longer be that of a Rambo-like warrior cop who goes in there to contain and suppress and mass arrest and impose mass incarceration on a poor community. Bottom line - the vision behind this new policing, or healthier policing, is that the cops are there to be part of the community and not just another predator within the community inflicting harm and misery.

INSKEEP: Let me just ask - is that the right level to think about this? Because when we watch videotapes, what we see is an instantaneous reaction by an individual cop. We see a cop who, if the officer is wrong, acts too quickly. That's our perception anyway, looking at a lot of these videos. Do we need to look at that grander policy view rather than at what individuals do?

RICE: In the videos that I have viewed, I've seen a lot of dynamics going on. Some of them are white cops who are clearly afraid of black men. And that always sets up a dynamic where you have hair-trigger force. You will also find some cops that are just bad with use of force. The bottom line is that yes, absolutely - you have to look at the training. You have to look at the mindset of the officer. You have to look at the levels of fear of both the folks who've been pulled over and the cops. And you have to analyze those dynamics case by case.

But you're absolutely right. There is a systemic pattern-in-practice problem here. And it stems from the way we have positioned our police and what we ask them to do. See, we get the policing we ask for. And that's what's hard for the larger public to accept is that, politically, we've asked for this kind of policing.

INSKEEP: I just want to put a couple of other things on the table, if I can. A lot of police officers have indicated that they're not feeling very well supported themselves, particularly after the shootings last week. This is something that the Dallas police chief underlined in his initial statement - that police were not feeling terribly supported. Have some protests gone too far?

RICE: I don't think the protests are the problem here. Nothing that I'm talking about could prevent a deranged loner with access to weapons of war who is bent on assassinating cops. That's like the lone wolf terrorist. And it obviously - it very clearly has impacted the ability of officers to feel like they can reach out to the community. This has also made it more difficult for the community to forgive the police for past transgressions.

In Watts, it had to start with an apology. LAPD, CSP cops went to the Watts Gang Task Force and apologized. And the Watts Gang Task Force extended their hands across the table, and they apologized to LAPD. And they both asked for a new relationship.

But Steve, it feels like we haven't made any progress. Because I'm way in the weeds on this stuff, I know there has been progress. We do not have your grandfather's LAPD anymore. We're on to the next stage. But there has to be political will, and there has to be urgency. As the president said, the urgency of now on this has passed.

INSKEEP: Civil rights attorney Constance Rice in Los Angeles, thanks very much.

RICE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.