Los Angeles civil-rights attorney Connie Rice, credited with helping reform the LAPD, has been in Seattle to advise Mayor Mike McGinn on court-ordered changes in the Seattle Police Department.

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Connie Rice, the civil-rights attorney credited with almost single-handedly forcing police reform in Los Angeles, was in Seattle this week trying to get a measure of the work needed to repair decades of mutual mistrust and fractured relationships between the Police Department and minority communities.

“I’m looking at this as a quest for trust,” Rice said in a recent interview. “How do you help a community that has been at war with a police department? How do you get anyone to understand that the future isn’t in warfare, it’s in trust.”

Rice, 56, has long and hard-earned experience in gaining trust and finding common ground, among even the most entrenched enemies.

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In Los Angeles, she engaged in face-to-face negotiations with some of the city’s toughest street gangs in the 1990s, a time when the city was a virtual war zone, with gang shootings and homicides daily. At that point, the best agreement that could be brokered was that the gangs agreed to try not to kill innocents, just one another.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn selected Rice last month to advise him as the city moves forward with the recent settlement agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) over findings that officers routinely use excessive force, mostly against minorities and the mentally or chemically impaired. The agreement also addresses issues of biased policing, which raised concerns with the DOJ.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has labored under a similar, albeit further-reaching, court-enforced agreement since 2001.

The city of Seattle has not signed a contract with Rice, who said she wants to see how she can help before committing to the job as an adviser to McGinn. She currently is deeply involved in the Advancement Project, a small civil-rights law firm in Los Angeles she helped found.

Aaron Pickus, spokesman for McGinn, said Rice lunched with Seattle Police Chief John Diaz and met other members of the department’s command staff on Wednesday.

That evening she met behind closed doors at City Hall with members of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition’s Multiracial Task Force on Police Accountability. A scheduled meeting between Rice and the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild on Thursday was canceled, Pickus said. Once among the LAPD’s most-reviled enemies — she was once physically thrown out of the LAPD’s union offices — Rice has since been sought as a trusted adviser to its last two chiefs, complete with her own parking place at police headquarters.

As a civil-rights attorney working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund, Rice had won dozens of lawsuits against Los Angeles over issues of police abuse, transportation, housing and schooling when she was chosen in 2003 to complete the investigation into the LAPD’s famously corrupt Rampart Division. It was there she met Charlie Beck, an LAPD captain and department insider who had been brought in to clean up the corruption that included officers involved in gangs and murders.

Beck has since been appointed chief, and he and Rice routinely appear together to discuss their collaboration, successes and challenges ahead.

Beck has described Rice as “the conscience of the city of Los Angeles.”

Likewise, Rice has immense trust in Beck. This past month, with reports of three violent LAPD encounters with citizens in the news, including one which claimed the life of a young mother, Rice said the department’s response reflects the progress that has been made.

“The difference is that, today, these cases will be investigated,” Rice said. “In the past, we didn’t have investigations, we had exonerations.”

The larger change — and the sort she wants to see take hold in Seattle — is in the attitudes of the police and the citizens they are sworn to protect. While Seattle police may be stinging from the DOJ investigation, Rice said, the best instrument to bring about that change is the court-enforced settlement agreement the city signed with the Justice Department.

LAPD has labored under a far-more extensive decree for more than a decade, and the resulting changes and the improvement in police and community relations offer compelling evidence that federal intervention can drive lasting police reforms, Rice, Beck and others say.

Much of the blueprint for changes in the LAPD was a 1,000-page report authored by Rice in 2007 that framed gang violence as a public-health problem and offered solutions to protect children from gangs much as you would try to isolate and protect them from a virulent disease.

“The enemy is not the gangs. The enemy is violence,” she said.

She explained that the commonly accepted police tactic of “suppression and containment” leads to police abuse in the community and more danger for officers. It’s a harsh cycle that can’t be broken until the police and the communities find common ground, she maintained.

The DOJ investigation into the Seattle Police Department began after the American Civil Liberties Union issued a letter, signed by 34 community groups, complaining of decades of police abuses in the city’s minority communities.

At least three task forces over the years have called for changes.

Rice said repairing those relationships will take effort by everyone involved.

Members of the community must learn to support what police are doing, she said, and understand how difficult and dangerous the job can be.

“The community needs to understand that it can be fighting for police safety,” she said. “Until you make it safe for police to be humane, you won’t get a police force to come along.”

“Seattle is not L.A.,” Rice continued. “But you are plagued with many of the same problems,” including increasing gang violence and escalating efforts by police to contain it.

“Surely you can learn from our mistakes. You don’t need to make the same ones.”

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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