‘If You’re a Bad Cop, I’m Coming for You’

Former police officer Caree Harper reps clients in excessive-force police cases

Published in 2024 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Amy White on January 9, 2024


After two years at San Diego State University, 19-year-old Caree Harper was running out of money; then she saw an ad in the newspaper: Wanted: Female and minority police-officer candidates.

Now a civil rights attorney who runs a solo shop in Santa Monica, Harper had begun considering policing when she was working at a 7-Eleven. “I bonded with some of the officers who would come in for coffee at weird hours,” she says. “And in high school, I got a jaywalking ticket but the officer was kind. I had very nice, human interactions with officers.”

So she applied, and, at the academy, excelled—serving as vice president of her class and graduating No. 1 in weaponless defense. “It’s baton training, throwdowns, handcuffing techniques, pressure-points force, less-lethal force. Less lethal, which is what every officer should aspire to,” she adds.

For five years, Harper worked as an East Bay area police officer. “I really enjoyed it: I got to drive fast, carry a gun, and hold interesting hours,” she says. “There’d be occasions where I’d pull a young person over for speeding, and I’d approach the car and say, ‘Tag, you’re it.’ If they came back with no warrants, I’d let them go, and it would leave them in such surprise. It was very rewarding to have an immediate positive effect on people.”

Most days came with a sense of fulfillment; some came with a medal. One day, off-duty, she saw a car slowly sinking into a canal and people panicking and watching from the banks. Dashing out of her car, she dove into the canal with another citizen who cut the seatbelt; she then helped pull the submerged driver out and started CPR. “He was blue and it didn’t look good,” she says. “By the time I got him on the airlift, he had color again, and we high-fived.” Harper won a lifesaving medal for her efforts. She later picked up a marksman medal for her shooting skills.

But she didn’t see the job as a long-term career. “I wasn’t conscious of what my number was, but I did know one day, my number would be up.”

That day arrived when she was injured in the line of duty. “Let’s put it this way: I really wanted someone to go to jail. He really didn’t want to go to jail. He eventually ended up going to jail, and I ended up in the hospital,” she says. “I never put the uniform on again.”

But the department not only retrained her as a paralegal, it paid for her to finish her bachelor’s degree. After that, she attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law. “I thought I’d end up a prosecutor,” she says. Instead, she’s a civil rights lawyer who represents clients in excessive-force police cases.

“I am not, and never was, anti-cop,” she says. “I’ve worked with very, very special folks at the police department whom I care about deeply—the people, who when I was on foot pursuit and yelling on the radio for help, these are the people who came for me. But if you’re a bad cop, I’m coming for you.”

Her background helps her save a “boatload of money,” she says, when officers try to stonewall her during depositions. “I can cut to the chase quicker,” she says. “I don’t have to go back and ask my expert witness to dissect what they just said. I know their policies. But most important, I know how 21-year-old Caree Harper felt or would’ve felt doing this or that. I’m able to put myself there. If it’s a mistake that I could have seen myself making as a police officer, I don’t take that case.”

The challenge Harper faced trying to make a name for herself in civil rights law in Southern California in the early 2000s was a doozy: The field was already occupied by Johnnie Cochran. “The chances of a baby lawyer like me getting a quality case when gladiators like Johnnie were working were pretty slim,” says Harper.

Even so, case by case, she built enough of a reputation to get referrals from his firm. “It was such an honor to be given those,” she says. “I still have the first Christmas card I got from Johnnie. And you cannot convince me that man didn’t personally pick it out and sign it just for me.”

Meanwhile, she bided her time working criminal cases. “Civil rights cases are hard to finance for a baby lawyer,” she says. “You may go a year or two before you settle, and how many people can live with maybe getting paid every other year?”

Everything changed in 2012 when Harper uttered a sentence on live TV that went viral.

She was representing the family of 19-year-old Kendrec McDade, an unarmed Black man who was shot to death in 2012 by Pasadena police. Police allegedly pursued McDade because he matched the description a 911 call, which was later confirmed to be a false report.

“I was asked to do an interview for local television, but when I arrived, the street lit up with so many camera crews,” she says. “And I said, ‘Kendrec McDade is dead because he was a Black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ I’d never heard that said before—especially not by a Black woman attorney. That sentence went all over the world.”

So did McDade’s case. “He was shot seven times, a couple in the back, and his final audible words were, ‘Why did they shoot me?’” Harper says. “This case has stuck—really stuck—with me on a personal level. That child could have been mine. The local police department, people on TV, everyone was badmouthing this child. And when all the reports came back and found out he had done nothing wrong, the Pasadena police communications officer never said they were wrong. Sure, you paid the parents millions, but you never cleared his name.”

In 2016, Harper earned a dismissal for Black Lives Matter protesters who were charged after blocking the 101 Freeway in LA in 2014 in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. She represented the family of Anthony McClain, a Black man shot and killed by Pasadena police in 2020; and she currently represents a Black woman thrown to the ground by police for filming an officer.

As for what Harper thinks needs to happen to move the needle on police reform? “We’ve got to drug-test officers, especially in critical incidents,” she says, noting that California law does not require blood tests after critical incidents. She’d also like to disallow police officers from viewing body-worn camera footage before giving statements. “And we need to get rid of qualified immunity,” she says, “which is very dangerous.”

She adds: “The officer we don’t talk about, but should, is the one who doesn’t engage in excessive force but will not speak up when he sees it. The duty to intervene now is real.”

Harper says the work is draining, but it’s bigger than her. “I’m the client’s advocate,” she says. “It’s my duty to make them whole or as whole as they can be. And I take it very seriously.”

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