Restoring Citizens' Trust In Police Departments
TONY COX, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
Incidents of excessive force by police have rattled communities across the country as citizens grow increasingly concerned about law and disorder.
The Justice Department has been called in to overhaul the plagued New Orleans police force at the mayor's request. Last year, a transit cop shot and killed a subway passenger in Oakland, California. Just today, a deputy in South Carolina was fired after breaking the leg of a handcuffed inmate with a baton.
And cases like these are rarely forgotten, from the shootings of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell by NYPD plainclothes officers, to the infamous LAPD Rampart police corruption scandal and the May Day riots just three years ago.
But police departments do change. Today, polls say that L.A. residents are more satisfied with their reformed police force than they've been in years. What happened? How does a police force start fresh? What challenges do they face as they attempt to regain the public's trust?
In a moment, we'll talk about the changes that have been made and those that are still needed. But first, we want to hear from the current and former cops in our audience. Do you feel that your community trusts you? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address is email@example.com. And to join the conversation, just go to the website, npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
So let's begin. Joining us now from our bureau in New York City is A.C. Thompson. He is a staff reporter for ProPublica, a correspondent of a PBS "Frontline" documentary on the New Orleans Police Department. A.C., nice to have you.
Mr. A.C. THOMPSON (Staff Reporter, ProPublica): Hey, thanks for having me on.
COX: Let's talk about New Orleans first because ever since the death of Henry Glover and then the deaths of six others on the Danziger Bridge, things have been really troublesome in that city, and the federal government, as we know, has been called in. How have the citizens of New Orleans viewed their police force in light of all of this?
Mr. THOMPSON: You know, I think the thing with New Orleans is that people have been very, very concerned about the police department for the past 30 years.
Thirty years ago, federal officers were indicted for allegedly killing African-American men in retaliation for the shooting of a police officer. They were indicted in the mid-'90s, an officer was indicted for calling in a hit on a citizen, and was sent to federal death row. Another officer, one that I interviewed, was sent away for bank robbery.
And you come up to 2005, and the incidents that we're talking about, around the Katrina time period, where you have police allegedly shooting unarmed citizens, where you have police allegedly shooting citizens and then burning up their bodies, allegedly beating people to death and covering it all up, you have a city that's been grappling with accountability with the police department for about 30 years.
COX: In a moment, we're going to be hearing from Connie Rice, in Los Angeles, about how that police department reformed itself. What tools do you think the federal government is using to reform the police force in New Orleans - or is it too early yet?
Mr. THOMPSON: Things are moving on two tracks in New Orleans. One is the civil side. And since 1994, the federal government has been able to use civil remedies to come in and say, look, we've got a pattern and practice of civil rights violations here. We're going into civil court, and we're going to get a consent decree, a consent order that's going to say Justice Department, the local police force, we're going to agree that these are 10 or 15 or 50 things that need to change. And a federal judge is going to monitor the department until they change.
The other track in New Orleans is federal prosecution, criminal prosecution. And so we've seen 18 current and former officers charged over the last year in three different cases, related to the killing of civilians.
COX: Is there any way to determine, A.C., how the public is responding to these reforms and these actions?
Mr. THOMPSON: Well, we're not at the point where we have reforms yet. We're at the very beginning of a reform era. I think that the biggest action that has been taken so far is the current mayor, Mitch Landrieu, said, hey, I want the Justice Department to come in, I want help. And he put in a new police chief, Ronal Serpas. So we're at the beginning of reforms.
What you hear, when you go to the public meetings with police officers, with the Justice Department, with the mayor, is - they say: We are terrified of the police; we do not trust the police; and we are begging you for help to improve this department.
COX: One final thing to ask you is this: In Los Angeles, when the city went through something very similar to this, there was a great resentment on the part of the members of the police force, on some of their parts. Is that the situation in New Orleans as well?
Mr. THOMPSON: You know, in speaking to many, many police officers, I think that they have a sense that there is a new era, there is a new regime and that they are, many of them, looking forward to working in a department that's going to be significantly improved, and is going to have better relations with the community.
COX: A.C. Thompson is a staff reporter for Pro is it Publica or Publica?
Mr. THOMPSON: It can be either.
COX: Either one, and a correspondent of a PBS "Frontline" documentary on the New Orleans Police Department, called "Law and Disorder," which airs on August 25th. He has done a series of stories on the New Orleans Police Department, including the first report on the death of Henry Glover. And he joined us from our New York bureau. A.C., thank you again very much.
Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you.
COX: Joining us now by phone from her office at the Advancement Project in Los Angeles is Connie Rice. She is a civil rights attorney, an expert in police reform, and has served as the chairwoman of the blue- ribbon commission that investigated the LAPD Rampart scandal. Connie, nice to have you.
Ms. CONNIE RICE (Civil Rights Attorney): Well, it's good to be with you, Tony.
COX: I guess a good place to begin: The LAPD at one point - I think you would agree with me - was one of the - if not the most notorious police department in the country. And yet, it seems to have, by the poll numbers that we referred to in the intro, to have improved its image greatly, even in the minority communities. How was that accomplished?
Ms. RICE: If you have time to go over 100 years of a struggle...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. RICE: It was a very long slog, for a long time. Way before I ever got to Los Angeles, you had attorneys like Johnnie Cochran and the private bar fighting on one front. You had communities, especially the African-American community - which was in an outright state of war with LAPD for a good 50 years - you had African-American officers, whom we represented, and Latino officers and female officers as kind of insurgents inside of LAPD to help crack the strong, blue wall.
It took almost every sector of Los Angeles and finally, after the Rodney King beating, I think LAPD finally stopped saying, we don't have to listen to anybody - we don't have to listen to the courts - we are above the law; we are the law; and stopped its arrogant culture that abused force more than anything.
Because I think LAPD has a very professional, paramilitarized DNA to its culture. And they were you couldn't corrupt them in terms of money. Money corruption was the exception - as opposed to NYPD, where money corruption is one of the drivers of their problems.
COX: Well, let me ask you, Connie: Wasn't money involved in the Rampart scandal, though? I thought it was.
Ms. RICE: The Rampart scandal was unusual for LAPD in that way. In LAPD, you are not accepted as an officer in good standing if you take a dime of money from a narcotics bust. It's a very clean force in terms of that kind of corruption, money corruption.
You don't find you know, you couldn't have filmed "Serpico" in LAPD, let me put it that way. It's not about a lot of cops being on a payroll and expecting their share of the take.
COX: Was there something specific that you could point to? I know you said that it was layers of people and agencies involved in reforming the department, but were there specific steps that you could enumerate for us?
Ms. RICE: Well, I think the last 10 years are instructive, starting last 15 years, starting with the Rodney King beating.
When the Rodney King tape went around the world on CNN, that was the beginning of the end of the old LAPD that did not have to listen to law, mayors or anybody else, lawyers suing them.
And so with the Christopher Commission reforms, that scathing, elite, blue-ribbon committee that came out and said LAPD has a racist and abusive force culture, and it needs to change, and it needs to move from paramilitary warrior policing to community policing. That was the first - that was the first strike.
And after that, we had Chief Willie Williams from Philadelphia. That didn't work out too well. And we had Chief Parks. And then 10 years about eight or nine years later, Rampart blew. And that was a scandal that rocked the entire criminal justice system to its core.
And long story short, that's what finally broke open change agents with inside of LAPD who said, you know what, we have to change. We're not going to survive this. We have lost the confidence of the blue-ribbon elite, the courts, the D.A.s.
And then that's when the feds came in with the pattern and practice law that Mr. Thompson referred to, which is a very important tool that's going to get renewed this year, and DOJ needs the support of reform chiefs who've said: I needed this law to make this change.
Then we made room for Chief Bratton, and once Bratton came in, he was the outside transformer - not just a reformer, but a transformer. And that was just enough of the court, Bratton, some inside change agents finally being freed up to say, you know what, we have to change how we police in this city. We need partnerships with the community. We need the support of the community. We cannot police a city like L.A. the way we have been. We can't do warrior policing. We have to become partners with the community.
COX: Let me remind people who are tuning in, this is TALK OF THE NATION, and we are talking about police and policing, and some of the problems that police departments are encountering around the nation and how they are trying to, and in the case of Los Angeles, apparently have been successful at restoring the public's trust.
If you'd like to join the conversation, our number in Washington, 800-989-8255; firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd like to hear from police officers, and tell us: Do you feel that the community trusts you? And if not, what do you think that you need to do as a member of law enforcement to regain the trust of the community?
Our guest at the moment is Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer and an expert in police reform, who served as the chairman of that blue-ribbon commission that she mentioned, that investigated the LAPD Rampart scandal.
Connie, we're going to take a break and come back with a member of a law enforcement organization to continue the conversation, but my question before we go is: Do you think - briefly - do you think that L.A. is now a model for other law enforcement agencies who have had a black eye, and who need to get their act together?
Ms. RICE: I think all change strategies have to be tailor-made to the culture of that police department, but L.A. is an example of how far you can come.
COX: Well, I'll tell you, it's as a person who lives in Los Angeles, I know that it has been a long, long road, and it is not all the way home yet. And there are portions of the city where there are still issues, which we're going to talk about as well.
We are talking about cops, and what police departments can do to regain the public trust. If you are in law enforcement, do you feel that your community trusts you? What do you think that you need to do to help restore the trust in your law enforcement organization? And if not, what do you think can be done to fix it?
Email us at email@example.com. Call us at 800-989-8255. You can also join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox. It is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.
Many citizens are losing faith in law enforcement after high-profile shootings, and allegations of misconduct and use of excessive force. Are you a police officer working to reconnect with the community? Share some of your best practices for regaining the public's trust. Our number, 800-989-8255, email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. And to join the conversation, just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Before we went to break, we were talking with Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles and a person who is an expert, actually, in this area. But joining us right now, here in Studio 3A, is Ron Hampton. He is the executive director of the National Black Police Association. He served on the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department after 23 years as a community relations officer. Ron, nice to have you on.
Mr. RON HAMPTON (Executive Director, National Black Police Association): Nice to be here.
COX: So when and Connie is still with us, also. You've heard the conversation so far from both A.C. Thompson and from Connie Rice. As a veteran in law enforcement, how do you see it? Can a department reform itself?
Mr. HAMPTON: Oh, I think it can. And, I mean, some of the things that Ms. Rice talked about is absolutely true. I was also laughing at the fact that you said that there are still issues. And I think that in every city, every community, there's probably always those underlining issues that sort of just take one incident to sort of turn it out.
But I had a philosophy when I was working there, and I think that it's one that's worth mentioning.
COX: What is it?
Mr. HAMPTON: We had to earn our wings every single day. And that's the way that's the attitude I think you have to take. Every day, you have to go out there, you have to talk to people, engage them. You've got to find out what's going on in the community.
Unfortunately, most police officers in this country don't live in the communities that they work in. So, to assume that you know what's going on in the community is just that, an assumption. So you find out what's going on because you engage the people.
Police don't solve crime by themselves. When a crime happen, the first thing they do is when they get on the scene, they start looking for somebody to ask the question: What happened? Did you see? What did you see? You know, what kind of things happened?
So we have to use those kinds of things. Those are the same things that -how we develop and build relationships. And, I mean, we can't do this job by ourself.
COX: I understand. Let's take a call, then we'll come back and ask Connie Rice another question. This is Eli(ph) from Midland, Texas. Eli, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
ELI (Caller): Hey, how are you doing, guys?
COX: We're fine. How are you?
ELI: Great. Hey, you know, I'm a former Los Angeles police officer. My class graduated I was class 9/91, the last class under Chief Gates. And we hit the streets in April of '92, and that week was the week of the L.A. riots.
And I stayed on the job for about three years. And it was hard because everyone was still in the old style of the policing, where when the LAPD showed up, we showed up with a big, old, you know, S on our uniform. And we were going to take charge and kick butt, and take names.
So, but, you know, all of that is kind of nerve-wracking because at the same time, you have to watch your back, and all the sergeants and supervisors were making sure that we weren't pulling too hard on the suspect's cuffs. But at the same time, you still have a bunch of really bad suspects who, you know, who want to fight with you and who are looking for an excuse to sue you.
So I'm no longer in police work and - but I do work in the public sector, and I see a lot of, you know, the police really have to deal with a lot. They have to kind of not be - almost not be human in a sense that they can't react to things like a normal person would.
And, I mean, people, when they, when they've got it in their head that they're right and you're wrong, even if they are doing something wrong, they just don't want to submit.
COX: Ron Eli, thank you very much for that. Ron, let me read a couple of emails and come back and ask you and both Connie, you still there with us?
Ms. RICE: Yes.
COX: Okay. Here's an email that comes from David(ph) in Rochester, New York. He says: Here in New York state, I know three people who carry a badge that says they are respectively, a retired cop, a mother-in-law of a cop and a friend of a cop. And this badge allows them to violate traffic laws with impunity. I see this abuse so many times that I cannot respect any police office. This we-are-above-the-law behavior encourages an attitude that can only lead to more serious problems.
Here's another one. This is Valerie(ph) in Reno, Nevada: My husband has been a police officer for 23 years. Until I married him, I never saw the flip side of being a cop. It's hard for cops to trust their communities. Officers are routinely yelled at, spit on, called names, threatened, treated with disrespect of all kinds. It often feels like a war. Yet, we rarely hear the positive stories. If we want to regain trust of the police, we also need to examine our own attitudes toward and treatment of the many police officers who serve us well every single day.
Connie, one of the issues that seemed to be important in Los Angeles, in terms of turning that department around - you made reference to it - was the leadership. How significant is that, and how much does the leadership tend to differ, do you think, from region to region, major city to major city?
Ms. RICE: The leadership is a huge part of what has to happen. But I think you've raised a number of very important issues that kind of get to the tectonic dynamics underneath all of this.
We ask our cops to be the thin, blue line. And that, that's more than just a slogan. It's a paradigm that kind of sets up the us-versus-them containment-suppression strategy.
You have communities that are going to be safe, like the communities I live in, and there are communities that will never be safe. And they are - the violence is contained and suppressed in them. And we know what they are. They're hot zones. That's where gangs are. That's where there's chronic joblessness.
So we have a ghetto strategy for our policing, and we send our cops out there to make sure that the folks who are supposed to be kept safe are safe. That's why you always hear, that wasn't supposed to happen in my neighborhood, when there's a killing that makes a headline.
But, so we have something basically wrong with the physics of our policing, and our cops bear the brunt of that. And that's that's a finding that I made in our Rampart report, which is that you can talk about the culture of police, you can talk about the arrogance of police, you can talk about abuse of force and corruption, like you have in New Orleans - which is very different from the problem you have in L.A., and very different from what you have in New York.
But you can talk about all of that if you want to but Tony, a big part of our problem with our policing is what we ask them to do, and the structure that we put them in to do it. And we need to understand that the physics of this stuff are not going to fundamentally change until we acknowledge that we don't have a universal safety strategy.
The second thing is that it's very important to understand that the reason that we can do a lot of this community policing right now is that crime is really low now. Compared to what it was during the crack wars, L.A. is basically at 1950 levels of crime.
Now, that is not the case in our gang zones. Our hot zones, you still have 100,000 times the chance of being struck by a stray bullet because the gang violence is so hot in L.A. But those are small neighborhoods that we have to focus on.
But by and large, the city has never been safer. And there's a paradox there because your cops are being sent into these communities without the backup. They're not given the community intelligence, they're not given the relationships, they don't have the networks to stay safe. And that's what we're working on.
And the final thing I would say is that the change that I'm talking about in LAPD is mainly at the top. Some folks in L.A.'s poorest communities would think I'm smoking something when I say that LAPD has changed because they're not going to see the top floor of LAPD's headquarters.
We have about another 15 years of change to get it down to the back of the squad room.
COX: Interesting point. Before we go to a call, Ron's(ph) been shaking -he's been nodding his head, Connie, throughout all of your answer. Ron, what do you want to add?
Mr. HAMPTON: No, it's very true. The change always happens first at the leadership, right, if you have good leadership, and they recognize that in order to get things done, there needs to be change. And so they go about their business of doing it.
And they have to be a change agent. It's not going to take place in a vacuum. But the last one to get the message is those who work on the street, and for some of the reasons that Ms. Rice talked about but for other reasons, too.
But corruption and violence is just is probably just as much a part of policing as policing is, and that's unfortunate because that's embedded in the history. The New York City Police Department corruption goes way back. I mean, there must have been at least four or five commissions in the city of New York. And if you read the reports, it's the same kind of violence, the same kind of corruption, brother, that we've been talking about in every single one.
Unless we address it in some systemic kind of way, then nothing is going to change. I mean, New Orleans and I'm going back to a point that she made about New Orleans, this or the reporter made about New Orleans it's not something that's happening now. New Orleans has been dealing with this for the last 40 years, at least 40.
COX: For a long time.
Mr. HAMPTON: So, you know, are we willing to do those kind of things? And again, she raised the point about what we ask our police to do. And that's a real critical question.
COX: And you know, and because of some things that have happened here in D.C. with regard to an incident on the train last week, people are talking about the fact the transit police weren't there when 70 teenagers went crazy on a subway train and wrecked it, and messed up a subway station.
I want to talk about that with you in a second. All right, hold on because I'd like to get this email in, and then I want to take a call. Here's the email: I was a Boston patrolman and detective for over 20 years, beginning in 1979. There was still animosity from certain neighborhoods that was a residual effect of Boston's busing issues.
However, I always made good contacts in the neighborhoods, and made it a point of making some visits. I always tried to give a youngster a break before they went into the system, depending on the offense. And in those days, neighborhood contacts and policing seemed to work well.
I have found that too often, the young guys who are on the force are far too quick to look at themselves as the authority rather than someone who protects and serves. I've had young officers bark at me during public events until I myself - until ID'ed myself and showed them the gold shield. I know that times are different, but I truly believe that community policing still works.
Well, I guess it works, Ron, and then it doesn't work.
Mr. HAMPTON: No, and, I mean - I can see myself with this guy, because that's been the case. I worked in the city for 24 years and had some rough times, but never had an incident where I wasn't able to handle the situation, and do it in the kind of way that there was, I think, a good outcome. But what I was going to say was - is that I think - part of this issue is what we ask our police officers to do. I personally think we ask them to do some things that they shouldn't be doing.
COX: Like what?
Mr. HAMPTON: Well, I mean, I think that the community should share more of a responsibility about - when it comes to public safety. I mean, this whole notion that we talk - this whole idea that we talk about community policing was a good idea. But the problem is, is that we've never, never ever fully implemented it. Because if we did, then the community becomes a partner in the public safety component, and then they take on more of the responsibility in terms of what happens in the community. Those kind of things used to happen. I'm 66 years old. Those things used to happen in my community, and we never even saw the police.
COX: Does it - let me ask Connie Rice before I take this call. Connie, does it happen in Los Angeles now? Community policing, the way we - we're talking about it?
Ms. RICE: It's getting there. It's getting there, and I can show you places where it works, and I can show you places where it doesn't exist at all. And in L.A., we also have the added issue of the immigrant community feeling absolutely no connection to the police.
When you talk about community policing in L.A., you're mainly talking about the African-American community and the police department. And we've got to find a way to connect with an emerging - they're the majority in L.A., and they're very frightened and very scared, and there is no connection. There's no network.
COX: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
Let's take another caller. This is Nate from Empire - I think that's Michigan. Nate, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome.
NATE (Caller): Very good, thank you. My comments are fairly general, and I apologize; I can't speak to anything specific, like Rampart. But I can tell you I'm a federal officer, and like all officers everywhere, very aware that the judgment calls that we make day to day, while they may be tense and rapidly evolving, we're going to be Monday morning quarterbacked on it for the rest of our careers, at times, and possibly for years beyond that. And it's a paradigm that is unique to this profession, as we all know, I believe, as officers. We can go to work today and not come home and - but we still do it the next day, and for years afterwards. And...
COX: Nate, let me ask you question. Are you saying that the fact that you could be second-guessed is something that is a problem that you would rather not have to deal with, in terms of the work that you do, because you're a police officer?
NATE: I think some second-guessing is going to keep a lot of people honest and keep a lot of people professional. And in light of - and in the face of so much second-guessing by the media and other professionals, it can be somewhat - it can run you down. But we still go to work every day, and we still put it on the line every day.
I think for - to help put it in context, Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman does a great job with the analogy of sheep, sheepdogs and wolves. And I recommend anyone listening - and I'm unabashedly plugging him - to check it out. And it's very succinct and very fitting, the mentality of a professional warrior in today's urban and suburban environment and what we - what lengths we have to go to, to keep ourselves safe and - perhaps in an atmosphere that doesn't appreciate us.
COX: Nate, thank you very much for the call. Connie Rice, you were in a position to be one of those people who second-guessed the Los Angeles Police Department, because you were part of the commission that lambasted them and suggested what they were doing wrong, and what they were doing right. What about what Nate just told us? Is there a place where we go, sometimes, that is too far in terms of our criticism of law enforcement -because they do put their lives on the line every day?
Ms. RICE: I think that what the caller is raising is the core of what we have to build everything else around. While I interviewed - we interviewed in our examination - our report was about - was interviewing cops about what they thought about the Rampart scandal. And they basically told us what they needed to feel safe. They said, look, we're in a war zone, and we've got to make sure that we survive. And so we're compensating for the lack of support, and the lack of safety. And so if you want us to police differently, you have to place us in a different position.
And it made us kind of flip the paradigm a little bit and come at it from that point of view. So that is exactly what we did. We documented how they actually recovered from Rampart and got a completely different mentality, which prompted a different response from the community.
But the caller is absolutely right. When you're in a war zone and you can't do community policing - meaning sitting down and doing the networking and doing the foot patrols, and all of the stuff that generates that safer community strategy that has all of the community backing the police department, which is really what you want - it's hard to do that when you don't have a basic level of safety. So in some ways, it's the level of safety, because officers were doing their jobs better and because of some other larger, sociological dynamics that reduced crime.
Mr. HAMPTON: But Ms. Rice, can I ask you a question, though? Let's take one of those communities that you're saying is a war zone in L.A., and let's say that we - if I was a police officer, and I worked in that community and they were - they would give me that community, the first thing I would do is go in there and start talking to the community, because I can't imagine that people who live in that community don't want to be safe.
Ms. RICE: That's right and...
Mr. HAMPTON: So then...
Ms. RICE: ...unless the police can make the folks who are backing them safe. The problem in L.A. is that you can't keep your witnesses safe, you can't keep - you can't have the community cooperating with the police, because the gang members and the others who are really destroying the peace of the community have too much of an upper hand.
Mr. HAMPTON: But that's why public safety...
Ms. RICE: There does have to be a war.
Mr. HAMPTON: But that's why public safety is everybody's responsibility.
Ms. RICE: Exactly. I'm not disagreeing with you. I'm just saying that it's a complex terrain we're talking about here, and everybody has a role.
Mr. HAMPTON: I know it. That's - and that's the point that I'm making, too. It's not just - we - they are almost acting as if it's only their job to make that community safe, and they don't live there. They don't know anything about us. So the first step to that is, number one, to go there and find out what's going on. And then you need to garner all of the resources that you need in order to make that happen.
COX: It's a...
Mr. HAMPTON: Because if you don't, then you're right; it's not going to change. You're absolutely right.
Ms. RICE: It's not going to change.
COX: I've got to jump in, only because the clock is saying we have to end this conversation. I appreciate both of you coming in. I appreciate all the calls and emails as well. Connie Rice, civil rights attorney, expert in police reform, served as a chairwoman of the blue-ribbon commission investigating the LAPD Rampart scandal. Ron Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association, served on the D.C. Metro Police Department for 23 years.
Coming up, Doug Lansky, author of "The Titanic Award: Celebrating the Worst of Travel." It's one you won't want to miss. I'm Tony Cox. It is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.