Connie Rice, a Los Angeles civil rights lawyer with the Advancement Project, has examined the issue of police shootings and law enforcement culture for 30 years. She spoke to The Times on Wednesday about the shooting of Walter Scott, an apparently unarmed African American man, by a white police officer in South Carolina.
North Charleston Police Officer Michael T. Slager was fired and charged with murder after a video surfaced showing him shooting Scott in the back as the man ran away.
Another African American man has been shot by police, but in this case authorities charged Officer Slager with murder just three days after the shooting. How unusual is that?
It’s unusual. Because normally every effort is made not to indict an officer, and in this case they looked at the evidence and they charged right away.
Investigations of LAPD officer-involved shootings often take months. What forces played into the speed of the South Carolina decision to file murder charges?
I think it was the video that made it pretty clear what was going on and what happened. And the backdrop of what feels like an avalanche of these shootings, but what is really the norm in this country of questionable shootings of unarmed black men. To me, it’s always been there as this background avalanche that nobody pays attention to. But because the spotlight is on it now, people are beginning to become aware.
How are videos and technology changing the handling of these cases and public opinion about them?
The videos are turning the police culture upside down. Because the community knows what goes on. The police are in deep denial and they have an automated cover-up system for themselves. They just automatically tell a story that exonerates themselves. They’re taught to say, “I was in fear of my life.” It’s almost like a mantra. And that’s just the norm and they see it as protecting themselves from an unreasonable public and unreasonable politicians. Because from the cops’ point of view, they’re asked to do the impossible and when they do it then they’re indicted.
It’s like this one cop I asked, “Why do you lie so much?” and he said, “Ms. Rice we don’t consider it lying. We consider it protecting ourselves. What you call a lie we call survival.” It’s that mentality. And the public, of course, sees cops covering up for bad deeds. Now I can understand both vantage points.… The problem is it’s not sustainable. And that’s what you’re seeing now; you’re seeing a strategy of survival falling apart.
Are you seeing a shift in Los Angeles regarding the handling of these cases?
With the rank and file and the union members, not so much. At the top, yes. There are individual officers who have really turned a corner and turned themselves around with a different outlook now. You won’t find [LAPD Chief] Charlie Beck covering up this stuff or [Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger] covering up this stuff anymore. They will honestly look at the evidence and tell you what they think is going on. I’ve never had these conversations in the past with the top brass, but I now do.
What’s the outlook for further change in Los Angeles?
We’re on our way. I’m hopeful because [the public] is asking questions they didn’t used to ask and they’re willing to be filmed. I don’t know why the community doesn’t get organized and start equipping every member of the public with cameras. Don’t wait for the police to do the camera work. Let’s put cameras on ourselves and flip them on anytime we’re interacting with police and public. That will do more to change things than anything.
Is there a growing national consensus that police use excessive force too often, especially against black men?
No. I think what the country is doing is waking up to the possibility that the police could be wrong every now and then. I don’t see any tipping point of any kind. I see the same great reluctance on the part of the public to believe the African American community, because if you believe the African American community you really, really, really have to change your policing culture. And I don’t think the American public is there yet.
The general thrust is still to believe the cops no matter what. The public has a vested interest in believing the police. Because they need to believe in the police so the police continue to protect them. That’s the bargain here that nobody wants to upset.
Would South Carolina authorities have taken such quick action without the national backdrop of other cases in Ferguson, New York and elsewhere?
I think it added to the mix of their calculation in South Carolina. I think what you had was clear-eyed politicians who were willing to take the risk of doing what the evidence told them to do, and that’s unusual. I hate to say it, but it’s highly unusual.
I’ve watched these scenarios for 30 years now and I can show you case after case after case that should have resulted in indictments if not, at minimum, firings, and where you didn’t even get a slap on the wrist because they didn’t want to go against the police. The union was too formidable, there was an election coming up and the politicians weren’t going to buck the police union, and they didn’t want to be seen going against a cop when the person who got killed was just a black thug.
How does police culture differ in South Carolina from Los Angeles?
The policing that comes most directly from slavery is the policing in the South. It came directly from the plantation police. The badges are the same. I’ll never forget when I showed [former Los Angeles Police Chief William] Bratton where the badges came from. He was shocked because he had this illusion that American policing stemmed from the bobby system in London.
I said, “No, chief. American policing stems from slavery.” The plantation police kept the slaves in check, now [police] keep black America in check. That’s where our policing came from. That’s why, at the fundamental DNA level, we’re always going to have problems. So when you’re in the South, you’re dealing with a direct bloodline of a very oppressive culture of policing. It’s only been slightly modified out West, but it’s all the same.
Then it’s even more surprising that a charge of murder against a police officer would come from South Carolina?
Yes. It goes completely against the historical grain and shows that the politicians are beginning to get it. What you have in South Carolina is … a new South culture for the politics of policing.
I would give credit to the demonstrators in the streets for that change. Because there never would have been an awareness of a need to reexamine this through new eyes. You now have a new eye on policing in the South. Very refreshing.