10.18.10

One Woman's War on Gangs

Connie Rice—Condi’s cousin and a speaker at The Daily Beast's upcoming Reboot America conference—has revolutionized how the LAPD deals with the city’s lethal gang problem.

Connie Rice—Condoleezza’s cousin and a speaker at The Daily Beast's upcoming Reboot America conference—has revolutionized how the LAPD deals with the city’s lethal gang problem.

When Connie Rice got a phone call from the Department of Defense a few years ago, she thought the person on the other end of the line had dialed the wrong number.

“You need my cousin, she’s around the corner from you—at the State Department,” she said, about to add the well-rehearsed, “I’m Connie, she’s Condi,” when the caller interrupted. He was looking for her, not her famous cousin, then-Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

The Defense Department was looking for innovative ways to deal with the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Rice, a lawyer and adviser to Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, had drawn lessons from studying gangs that the caller thought might be helpful.

In her research, Rice has discovered stunning similarities between L.A.’s gang wars and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. With 80,000 gang members on the streets of L.A. County, police face what amounts to an insurgency and Rice has found that in the worst neighborhoods, children register “wartime levels of post-traumatic stress.” Living in some parts of the city is like living in a war-torn country, she says, with kids learning how to duck bullets before they can read.

And if this is a war, the police are losing.

Despite a 30-year law-enforcement effort to control and combat the problem, the gangs today are bigger and stronger than ever. So serious is the daily carnage in L.A., it has even caught the attention of the World Health Organization. 

Yet, to many in the city, those neighborhoods are all but invisible.

“They’re like cancer spots,” says Rice. “Most of us don’t go near them, or aren’t aware of them.”

To treat the problem, the LAPD has “to change their warrior centurion culture,” she says, and try a radically different approach..

“I have sued my board members; my friends,” says Rice. “We go after power systems, and institutions, and police chiefs.”

“We are losing the most important battle, which is to reduce the attraction and control of gangs—it’s too big for one kid at a time,” says Rice. “It’s a sociological problem. You can’t use law enforcement to get rid of gangs.”

Dayo Olopade: Condoleezza Tells Her StoryLast year, Rice began the first gang-intervention academy in the country. Staffed with former gang-bangers and academics, including a sociologist and an epidemiologist, the academy offers a 15-week course that deals with gangs as a disease. Students are taught how to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in kids as well as the proper protocol during gang funerals.

Rice, who is writing a book about her life and experience on the frontlines of L.A.’s gang wars tentatively titled Power Concedes Nothing, is also helping authorities establish a crime-solving database that will give officers information on gang turf, community leaders, student test scores, housing help, and drug-treatment programs in the areas they patrol.

“I think it’s an amazing thing for her to take on this thorny problem that no one is addressing in Los Angeles or the U.S.,” says her cousin, Condoleezza Rice. “She has gone well beyond the law into community-building and it is has become a model to how we solve problems.”

(Condoleezza has just finished her memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People, returning to Stanford, where she is a Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution, and a professor of political science.)

The two women have been spending more time together since Condoleezza left the White House—on Oct. 25, they will be appearing together on stage at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to promote Condoleezza’s book—but the cousins didn’t meet until 1993, when Connie visited Stanford to give a speech at the law school, and afterward dropped by her cousin’s office to say hello.

“We instantly clicked,” says Condoleezza, describing a meeting of minds. “Every time we’re together, it’s like we were never apart. I think we’re a lot alike. She’s family. That’s closer than close friends.”

Looking at the women’s political résumés, it’s easy to believe that they are polar opposites, but they’re not, she adds. “A lot of the causes she’s associated with, I can associate with,” Condoleezza says. “We may not have the same party affiliation. But we share the same values.”

Connie, for her part, describes herself as “a little less ideological” than her cousin. “I want what works and I am not really inside the castle,” she says. “I don’t mind conservatives or Republicans as long as they are smart and logical.”

The two even used to kid each other about their divergent political affiliations.

“I said to her once, ‘I’m going to say this terribly right-wing thing, and get you in trouble.' And when I joined the administration, she said she would say some terrible left-wing thing and get me in trouble,” Condoleezza said.

Genethia Hayes, a close friend of Connie, says she is not surprised that the two get on as well as they do.

“Even though they’re politically miles apart, they probably see the ills of the world the same,” Hayes says. “I don’t think either is confused about what the end-game looks like.”

The two women had very different upbringings—Condoleezza grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and a teacher; Connie grew up on military bases around the world, the daughter of an Air Force colonel.

Despite their disparate upbringings, both were precocious and strong-willed children. By age 4, Condoleezza had already given her first music recital. At the age of 5, Connie was a budding champion of underdogs who, at the Cleveland Zoo, tried to coerce her brother into helping her free a lion.

And both sets of parents instilled in their daughters the importance of education.

“Here are these two brilliant women from the same family that had the same thing told to them: ‘We are providing you with an extraordinary opportunity through education,’” says Hayes. “They didn’t say, ‘you have to be an attorney or teacher.’ But they did say… 'you now have an obligation to do something credible and courageous and meaningful with your life.’”

“College,” says Connie, “is the third word you learn after Mom and Dad,”—a sentiment echoed by Condoleezza. Although they come from “very different political persuasions,” she says, they both value education and share “a passion for doings things for people who have less than we do. Those are Rice values.”

During high school, a time when the other girls in her school were flirting with boys and hanging out with friends, Connie was glued to the television set watching the Watergate impeachment hearings, finding a hero in Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who called for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.

After graduation, Connie went to New York University law school and soon found herself immersed in the case of death-row inmate Billy Moore. Young and black, Moore was accused of killing a friend’s uncle after a drunken episode. In part thanks to her work on his behalf, Georgia’s clemency board released Moore in 1989. Rice went on to become a law clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith, and a litigation associate with Morrison & Foerster.

“I knew I wanted to do poverty law,” says Connie. “I wanted people to know that I was representing the poor as a first choice and not a last choice. I could have had the money or the privilege.”

Instead, she fought for justice, eventually creating the nonprofit Advancement Project, a policy, civil rights and communications “action tank.”

Over the years, she has sued the Los Angeles Police Department; the city’s housing authority; the transportation authority; the Department of Water and Power. She has filed class-action lawsuits questioning police conduct and has sued the city for allowing cross-racial violence to fester in its housing projects. The case she filed on behalf of the Bus Riders Union meant that $2 billion was spent improving L.A.’s bus system. In 2000, she won a $750 million lawsuit for new school construction.

“I have sued my board members; my friends,” she says. “We go after power systems, and institutions, and police chiefs.”

Connie, it seems, likes to ruffle feathers. In 2003, after she was hired to advise Bratton on the Rampart corruption scandal that roiled an LAPD anti-gang unit in the late '90s, she interviewed local officers to hear their views on the relationship between citizens and police. Among the things they talked about were “why Rampart happened. Why they are brutal. Why they lie,” she says, describing the conversations as something out of L.A. Confidential.

A few years later, Rice authored a much-talked about report titled “A Call to Action: The Case for Comprehensive Solutions to Los Angeles’ Gang Epidemic” and heralded as a “Marshall Plan for Gangs.” It warned that gangs were expanding into more Los Angeles neighborhoods, and that the city was blowing its money on gang programs that had no clear goal or oversight.

The report recommended the city and county work together to fix the troubled probation and juvenile justice systems, and begin a vigorous campaign to stop the entertainment industry from glorifying gang violence. In essence, the city radically needed to change its approach to dealing with gangs.

The report made it all the way to Washington and the White House, prompting the call from the Defense Department. Connie still works with the DOD but won’t talk about the nature of the work. Her role in general, though, has shifted from “outside agitator to inside agitator opponent,” she jokes. “It has gone from war to infiltration.”

Xtra Insight: Tune in for Tina Brown's interview with Condoleezza Rice during the Innovators Summit

Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.