US policing system is grounded in slavery, says Connie Rice. How to upend it?

Written by Kathryn Barnes

While some members of the Black Lives Matter movement call for dismantling police departments entirely, those on the frontlines of police reform are calling for dramatic structural changes.

“American policing decends directly from slavery,” says Connie Rice, a long-time LA civil rights attorney who has worked closely with the Los Angeles Police Department on reforms since the 1992 Rodney King unrest. “The purpose of American policing is to control and to contain populations of people who are not meant to be in the society.”

She says we need to get rid of that mode of policing, and reward officers who divert crime rather than arrest people. She points to the Community Safety Partnership (CSP), launched in 2011 under former LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck, as a successful program worth replicating. In it, officers assigned to public housing developments in Watts and Boyle Heights worked alongside community leaders and local government agencies to provide wraparound services and get to know residents rather than arrest them.

“An arrest is considered a failure,” says Rice. “[CSP police officers] get rewarded for making sure that communities have what they need to be healthy. They're not going after every kid in baggy pants to fill the gang database like traditional enforcer cops. These are cops who were rewarded for helping the community empower itself to become healthier.”

Despite this unit’s success, quantified in a 2020 UCLA study, Rice says the rest of the LAPD still uses traditional policies techniques that disproportionately arrest and kill people of color.

In order to successfully reform the LAPD and other police departments, Rices says we need to change job descriptions and what we reward cops to do — and use political and social activism to change a deeply entrenched system rooted in Jim Crow laws.

“This is about white America deciding what kind of society we want in the 21st century,” she says. “Are we going to go back to the 18th and 19th centuries of white nationalism and … fascism? Or are we going to go forward and actually erase the vestiges of a system that we inherited from slavery?”



  • Connie Rice - Los Angeles civil rights attorney, former member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing - @ConnieRicePCN