Cross: Ex-Seattle Chief Norm Stamper, Still Breaking Ranks
October 12, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer Lindenberg cross former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, author of To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police and Breaking Rank, A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing and is a highly sought-after speaker for LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
Q. You’ve had a long, illustrious career in law enforcement: you started out as a beat cop in 1966, fully fifty years ago. That puts you in an extraordinary position to speak to what policing used to be like. The equipment was different, but what about the culture? What about the attitude toward the public? What about the fear? What was your training like? Back then, were you already expected to wear as many hats (social worker, medical first responder) as cops are today? What was it like, policing during Vietnam, the tail end of the civil rights movement, the urban riots? Has it really gotten worse, or just different?
A. The cop culture has changed little in the past 50 years. Why would it? It’s the product of a rigid, essentially unchanged paramilitary-bureaucratic structure that from the beginning has been male (and white) dominated, insulated and isolated from the people its officers have been hired to serve. That’s a recipe for intransigent in-group solidarity. Why would anyone be surprised at the “blue wall” mentality or the code of silence so common then, and now?
Although faced with campus unrest, civil rights insurrections, and anti-war demonstrations back in the sixties and early seventies (we spent a lot of 12-hour days mustering, hanging around, and often wading into rock-and-bottle-throwing riots,) we weren’t shooting people in those days. One reason, of course, is that we weren’t being shot at.
While there were too many guns in those days, their numbers have exploded over the years, which helps to account for what I see as increased fear on the part of officers. (It seems today that every other car stop, every other 911 call produces a gun or three or four—often in the hands of someone who should never be near a firearm.)
I’m not talking about the kind of healthy, managed fear that causes officers to use caution and approach potentially dangerous situations slowly, methodically. I’m talking about fear that manifests, in too many cops, as hair-on-fire, screeching and shouting: police officers whose primal fears (and lack of training, maturity, and self-discipline) cause them to overreact, to escalate rather than de-escalate, to lose control rather than exercise control. We didn’t see that kind of behavior much in my day. Sure, every once in a while a cop would lose it and light into a citizen. (I reject “civilians” to describe members of the community, as use of the term makes the police, ipso facto, the military.) Which is not to say there was no cruelty or brutality in those days. “Excessive force” was common, as was the use of racial and ethnic slurs.
Academy training was generally relevant, if limited. But it was to a large extent unhelpful in preparing us for sensitive, core responsibilities: defusing and de-escalating tense situations, understanding and appreciating cultural differences, what to do when working alongside a cop who broke the law, or someone’s skull.
We hear a lot of talk these days about society expecting too much of its police officers. Nothing new here. In fact, fifty years ago, probably a hundred years ago, when a citizen had a problem and didn’t know what to do with it, a common reaction was “call the cops.”
Years ago police departments set dispatch priorities that “weighted” the importance of incoming calls: life and death situations (armed robbery in progress, a drive-by shooting, a baby not breathing, etc.) were ranked No. 1, followed by others of the seemingly infinite variety of situations we humans might need to call a cop for. As first responders, police officers must be skilled at triage, and well informed about other agencies, public and private, whose resources can be brought to bear to help troubled people.
Q. Starting in 1977, by which time you’d reached the rank of captain, you took up a position as special advisor to the chief of police and began to work as a liaison between the police department and City Hall. One of your first responsibilities was finding a way to improve the relationship between the San Diego PD and the community, which had been damaged by allegations of racist treatment as well as the 1978 police shooting of an African-American resident. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same: we’ve seen the same fact pattern unfold in cities like Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson over the past few years. Were you able to improve things? If so, is there a lesson you could impart to today’s would-be police reformers and members of task forces? Has it always been this way? Can it be changed?
A. Yes, I would say it’s always been this way. And, yes, it can be changed. For the better, that is. Mostly because, for the first time, white middle-class citizens and politicians can actually see (and often hear) what actually takes place in many controversial police actions. Controversies that, especially in ethnic minority communities, have been commonplace for generations, dating back in an uninterrupted line from the days of slave patrols. Controversies that often do not jibe with official accounts.
In years past, an officer-involved shooting would be described, often in bureaucratic or legalistic fashion, by a police spokesperson. “The suspect then reached furtively into his waistband… the suspect turned on the officer with a knife… the suspect deliberately tried to run down the officer in his vehicle…” We read the account or watch the spokesperson being interviewed and think, Well, it’s tragic, just like the chief said, but you don’t come at a cop with a knife. Today, because of dash-cams, body-cams, security cameras, and ubiquitous cell phone cameras, we see things we never saw before. Like Laquan McDonald walking away from Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke or Walter Scott fleeing on foot from North Charleston, South Carolina police officer Michael Slager. We watch in stomach-turning horror as each man, in these cases, was shot in the back.
Ambiguous situations as well as clear, defensible, even heroic, police actions have also been captured on video, to be sure. But, when a white cop commits a cold-blooded murder of a nonthreatening or unarmed black man—then lies about it (and is joined in that lie by fellow officers)—it reinforces what many people of color have always known or believed about their local police.
Q. Your time as a beat cop coincided with the beginning of what turned out to be a thirty-year surge in crime, as well as the rise of the community policing movement. The concept of “protecting and serving” was still relatively new at the time; the phrase itself was invented by the LAPD in 1955. So what was it like in San Diego? Did the police resent the prospect of closer cooperation with the community, having to pay more attention to its wishes? Was change forced on the cops, the result of popular discontent with the crime wave or widespread displeasure with police tactics and attitude? Or was it something the SDPD did voluntarily, because it saw an opportunity? You’re a lifelong believer in police-community engagement. Where did that belief come from? And in retrospect, did you and your fellow cops do a good job? Were there things that could have been done better?
A. I began my police career with the best of intentions. A vaguely liberal, highly idealistic 21-year-old, I told myself I’d be a good cop. I would treat people with dignity and respect, refuse to write chickenshit tickets, never, ever use the n-word, and honor the civil liberties of my fellow citizens. Those lofty intentions lasted about five minutes as I was sucked into the clutches of an extraordinarily powerful cop culture. When, at about 14 months on the job, I was slapped upside the head by a principled prosecutor (who questioned whether the U.S. Constitution meant anything to me,) I began studying my institution, its history, its problems, its potential.
In time, I came to believe the police in America belong to the people, not the other way around. That the job does, in fact, require officers to “protect and serve.” But it goes beyond that: it goes to a willingness and an ability to forge an authentic partnership with the community… with the citizens as senior partner. Most cops, however, reject that philosophy.
Regardless of what their chiefs or local politicians have to say about “community policing” or citizen participation or police-citizen collaboration, the attitude, most commonly conveyed in demeanor, is “We’re the cops, and you’re not.”
That said, there has been progress, however halting. And there are now, as there have always been, good cops: compassionate, caring, empathetic. Unfortunately, a single catalytic incident (use your imagination) can cause a backlash against positive changes. Which makes clear that deep-seated institutional change remains elusive.
Q. In 1983, you were made deputy chief of police at the SDPD; in 1989, you became Executive Assistant Chief. During that time, you had a lot of different responsibilities, but one consistent theme was oversight of your fellow officers. How did you weed out the misfits and poor performers in a large police department without making yourself very unpopular? Was misconduct common? Were there misdeeds that were tolerated, overlooked? Alcoholism? Domestic violence? Violating people’s civil rights? If an officer found himself struggling, how much support could he expect from the department or his fellow cops? Was “professional courtesy” a thing? And what about the bad apples? Were they as few in number then as certain people would have us believe they are now? Are there as many now as people believe?
A. Given the pressures, external and internal, it is understandable that police officers are at high risk for stress—and all of its negative consequences: low impulse control, sleep deprivation, alcohol and other substance abuse, other personal, medical, financial, and family nightmares. Further, a cop who fails to develop healthy coping mechanisms is far more likely to violate his fellow Americans’ civil liberties, engage in bigotry and brutality, and generally act in reputation-tarnishing fashion.
I’m proud to say that under the administration of two successive chiefs in San Diego, the SDPD made substantial progress in the effort to create a healthy, indeed, therapeutic organizational climate—and build a positive relationship with its communities. From pre-employment psychological screening and background investigations to solid improvements in entry-level and in-service training to smart protocols (peer support, fitness-for-duty appraisals, etc.) the department developed many programs to help officers cope with job-related stress.
Equally if not more important, the brass established nonnegotiable standards of performance and conduct… and it fired cops, including supervisors and managers (“bad apples”?) who couldn’t or wouldn’t live up to them.
Prior to this period, certainly from the time I joined the department in 1966 through the mid-nineties, “professional courtesy,” a quota system, and other organizational ills were a reality if not a defining characteristic of SDPD. That changed under Bill Kolender and Bob Burgreen, as did many other indices of agency health and professionalism. Successive chiefs, Jerry Sanders (who went on to become two-term mayor of the city), Dave Bejarano, Bill Lansdowne, and the city’s first woman top cop, Shelley Zimmerman, have carried on these fine traditions.
Yet, none of these chiefs, nor their promising, innovative policies or programs, has been able to rid the agency of so-called bad apples. With depressing regularity, on the watches of each of the aforementioned top cops, we’ve seen evidence of systemic problems: corruption, excessive force, serial sexual predation, the code of silence, and more. Shouldn’t this, at long last, cause us to examine the barrel, or indeed the whole apple orchard, i.e., the structure, the culture of the agency? I say yes.
Q. What’s your position on police unions? Is it a good thing that chiefs’ hands are so often tied when it comes to hiring, firing and disciplinary decisions? To the extent institutional reform is necessary, do unions stand in the way? And what about LEOBORs? Is it right that police officers have access to what amounts to a privilege set of due process rights the rest of us don’t? Shouldn’t everyone get that kind of protection, or is there a reason only police officers deserve it?
A. With few exceptions, local police unions are the scourge of American law enforcement, an embarrassment to the nation’s illustrious history of the general labor movement. Established in the face of arbitrary and capricious management practices, police unions served an honorable function… decades ago. Yet, at every turn since, in cities throughout the country, union leaders have fought even modest police reform initiatives.
Cops are legitimately entitled to the same civil liberties and due process rights of all Americans. So why an extra set of legal guarantees? The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights is long overdue for repeal. Which will happen, I believe, when local politicians and state legislators grow a spine and stand up to the undeniable political clout of police unions. Or, when enough federal judges echo the sentiments of James L. Robart who, presiding over a DOJ consent decree, informed the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild that, no: its collective bargaining interests do not trump the Constitution when it comes to police reform. Hear, hear!
Q. In 1994, you became Chief of the Seattle police department. Now that you had your hands on the tiller, what were the reforms you’d always longed to implement, but couldn’t due to bureaucracy? How did you reshape the department? Were the rank-and-file officers responsive to the changes you made? At the SDPD, you were an early advocate of demilitarizing (the appearance of) the police, but the changes you proposed (like doing away with the ranks of Sergeant, Lieutenant and Captain) were rejected by your boss. Did the tread-softly approach go over well in Seattle? And how does that square with your department’s response to the 1999 Seattle WTO protests?
A. First, let’s get my botched response to the “Battle in Seattle” out of the way. I’ve acknowledged repeatedly that I made the biggest mistake of my career in authorizing the use of tear gas against nonviolent, in fact non-threatening, protesters. That was on Day 2 of the WTO ministerial conference. So why would I, an advocate of the demilitarization of law enforcement, bless the use of chemical agents under such circumstances? We have to go back to my days as a beat cop in the turbulent sixties.
Many were the times we were outnumbered, outflanked, and occasionally in danger of being overrun by demonstrators. On such occasions the standard prescription was to order up gas, lots of it, and to apply liberally. It was the “great equalizer” when the odds were stacked against you, and it became the default tactic in the sixties. It may have been expedient, but it was far from effective in the long run.
Particularly if an agency was working to establish a genuine “people’s police.”
In the seventies, as a newly minted, hydrophobic gasbag of a police reformer, I was all about “revolutionizing” the structure and culture of policing. And by the early nineties I was advocating a complete overhaul of the rigid, top-down, paramilitary-bureaucratic structure of the system. One of my suggestions, as the Executive Assistant Chief of Police, was to demilitarize the titles of first-line supervisors and middle managers (sergeant, lieutenant, captain, commander) within SDPD. Burgreen, my boss at the time, agreed not to immediately toss the proposition but to allow the debate to rage within the organization, for a couple of months.
It was a heady time within the agency, spirited debates taking place in the field as well as in offices and hallways of the department. My thought was that since “language structures reality,” if in our daily work we looked like, talked like, behaved like soldiers then we were… soldiers, an occupational force. In the end, my shelved proposal had won about a dozen (of 1,280) converts to the cause.
Q. Let’s talk police militarization, and more broadly: overreach. Is it acceptable to trade off some amount of police safety in exchange for better community relations? After all, you never know when you might need that BearCat. Is this even the right question to ask? Would eliminating military-surplus toys help heal the rift between big-city police departments and the people they serve, or would it amount to a cosmetic fix? Should SWAT teams be used to execute drug warrants as a matter of course? No-knock raids? Should they use StingRays to snoop on chicken-wing thieves? Is any amount of goodwill or respect for the Constitution worth putting a cop’s life at risk, however indirectly? If not, where should the trade-off be?
A. Here’s the deal. A cop does not need to uniformed, equipped, and weaponized like a soldier to be safe. The “soft” uniform, the everyday wear of America’s beat cops, replete with duty belt—on which is attached an array of practical weapons and tools—is perfectly suitable for the average patrol shift. That said, there are times and places when a city or county cop will, indeed, look more like a soldier than a domestic peacekeeper.
In the summer of 1984, James Huberty, armed with an Uzi, a shotgun, a 9 mm pistol, and a shitload of ammo, walked into the San Ysidro McDonald’s and opened fire. The 41-year-old killed 21 people, including five children, and wounded another 19 as he kept our patrol and SWAT officers penned down by gunfire. At an hour and seven minutes into the massacre, the “crazed gunman” had fired almost 250 rounds, many of them at cops who’d tried to get close enough to rescue victims and take out the shooter. Finally, a SWAT sharpshooter took a position in the post office across the street, lined up his shot, and ended the carnage.
In the aftermath of that horrible day we asked ourselves: Could we have saved additional lives? The answer was unequivocal: yes. Had we been in possession of an armored personnel carrier, we could have driven that vehicle up to the door—or through the door—of the iconic fast-food joint and, in all probability, saved many lives.
So there is a time and a place in police work for military-like appearance, military-like vehicles and equipment, military-like weaponry, and military-like tactics. But not in everyday, “routine” policing.
Every county agency, every urban police department needs a SWAT team, and it must be prepared to deal with armed and barricaded suspects, bank robbers who’ve seized hostages, rampage violence of the sort seen in Orlando and at Columbine High and Sandy Hook Elementary, assassination attempts on the lives of police officers, terrorist acts, and the like.
Horrific incidents can happen in small, rural towns as well, of course, but it makes no sense for tiny police agencies to sport their own SWAT teams. A regional approach makes more sense. The key, for agencies large and small, is a rigorous selection process, the finest training and equipment possible, and effective leadership and supervision. A well-disciplined, competent and confident SWAT team saves lives. I’ve seen it, numerous times.
I’ve also witnessed too many of those YouTubed pre-dawn drug raids: shoddy, militaristic, poorly planned or unplanned. Were it not for the all-too-frequent tragic outcomes, they’d be comical, in the manner of a Max Sennett Keystone Cops silent film. Distinctly unfunny is a bunch of undisciplined, ballistically armored and weaponized soldier-cops driving a BearCat onto the lawn of a suspected drug offender’s residence, ramming the front door, flash-banging grenades inside, starting fires, shooting innocent people and family pets, getting shot themselves, and generally terrorizing the entire neighborhood. Especially when they hit the wrong house, a not-infrequent occurrence.
We can do better, and we must.
Q. You’re an outspoken opponent of the War on Drugs, which, to put it mildly, is unusual in your line of work. Have you always held this position? If not, what led you to reconsider? Is it a noble experiment that didn’t pan out, or was it the wrong idea from the get-go? And then there’s prostitution. You don’t want to legalize streetwalkers, but you do favor decriminalizing prostitution “indoors.” What kind of legal framework do you have in mind? How closely should the government oversee the world’s oldest trade?
A. Drug prohibition was, indeed, the “wrong idea from the get-go,” but I didn’t realize this at first.
Our “narcotics” instructor at the academy—this was five years before Nixon’s famous declaration—fed us the company line: a strange mix of policy, enforcement procedures, legalese, and reefer madness. Drugs are bad, drugs are dangerous, people who take or deal drugs are bad and dangerous. They must be stopped, it’s our job to stop them.
In the field, I was a good soldier, dutifully making drug busts but usually only when I stumbled across luckless individuals who happened to be “holding”—most of them young, poor, and of color; or hippies or housewives or skid-row down-and-outers or rich kids partying on the beach or at mommy and daddy’s McMansion. Occasionally you might observe hand-to-hand dealing and make a felony pinch for trafficking. But for the most part, drug enforcement was left to a small Narco Squad.
Then came the announcement of “war,” in June of 1971, which made the country’s beat cops the enemy of so many people: disproportionately young, poor, black, Latino. You don’t fight a war without an enemy (or propaganda).
Prosecuted with roughly equal vigor by the entire succession of presidents since (with special enthusiasm by Presidents Reagan and Clinton), the War on Drugs has produced staggering consequences: the arrests of literally tens of millions of nonviolent drug offenders; the fragmentation of families; the ruination of countless individual lives; the often gross violations of Americans’ civil liberties; and the enormous costs to the taxpayer: $1.5 trillion. And the kicker? Drugs are more readily available (with greater access to our children) at lower prices and higher levels of potency than ever before. I can’t imagine a more colossal public policy failure.
I came to this view gradually and in the early nineties began speaking out against the drug war and in favor of replacing prohibition with a robustly enforced regulatory system.
Prostitution is more problematic, from my perspective. I have no ambiguous feelings whatsoever about human trafficking, about children or anyone else forced into prostitution, about pimps or johns physically abusing—or murdering—workers in the sex industry. These violations of human rights—and criminal laws—should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Respecting all sides of the debate among feminists, and as a firm advocate of women’s rights, I do believe adult women, and adult men, should have the right to engage voluntarily in prostitution. I’m motivated as much by the health and safety of all parties as by individual rights of consenting adults.
Serial killings of sex industry workers would, I believe, be dramatically reduced under a regulated system.
Q. You’re an opponent of overincarceration, advocating “case-by-case release” of nonviolent drug offenders from prison. That puts you in good company: thanks in no small part to the efforts of FAMM, those offenders are more sympathetic than ever. But as Prof. John Pfaff pointed out in last week’s Cross, nonviolent drug offenders make up only a small subset of America’s prisoners, especially in state prisons. Pfaff argues that going by the numbers, the only way to make a dent in America’s oversized prison population is to less vigorously prosecute some of America’s violent offenders. Given that you’ve spent decades, in and out of uniform, battling domestic violence – precisely the sort of offense that used to be prosecuted less harshly than it is today – would you be willing to countenance more lenient treatment of violent offenders like domestic abusers if the payoff were a smaller prison population? If now, how do we put an end to prison nation?
A. Dr. Pfaff is certainly correct that (exclusively) nonviolent drug offenders do not make up a majority of the country’s prison population. But, as Brookings has made clear, “In every year from 1993 to 2009, more people were admitted for drug crimes than violent crimes. In the 2000s, the flow of incarceration for drug crimes exceeded admissions for property crimes each year. Nearly one-third of total prison admissions over this period were for drug crimes…”
One challenge with these numbers is apparent: How many defendants were convicted of a drug-related violent crime, and how many of a violence-related drug crime (possession or sales, for example)? This isn’t a gnat-milking distinction, I realize, but regardless of the answer it does offer hope that by ending the drug war we stand to end much of the violent behavior that attends it.
“Prison nation” is an apt description. Mass incarceration, fueled by the drug war, the prison-industrial complex, and the unconscionable practice of building and filling cells for profit, is a blight on the country and a drain on the public treasury. It must be reversed.
But not by releasing violent offenders.
Research-driven, evidence-based policies, programs, and facilities—and, of course, the law—are essential in determining who should be securely separated from society, and for how long.
Ensuring public safety is a vital responsibility of government, federal, state, and local. Jails and prisons play an important role in the equation. As do mental health and drug treatment programs. As a society, we must underwrite the costs of criminal justice and procedural due process, of incarceration, and of treatment—in secure facilities, as necessary. But, in the end, we are simply jailing far too many of our citizens and, in the process, creating enormous social problems.
Q. In 2000, after 34 years in uniform, you retired as chief of the Seattle police department. Since then, you’ve become a sought-after columnist, consultant, advocate, expert witness… you even wrote a well-received book on “The Dark Side of American Policing.”
There’s been a great deal of debate as to whether change for the better in police departments will come from the rank-and-file or the leadership. Which approach should police reformers choose, winning the hearts and minds of street cops or dealing directly with the brass? Is fixing a dysfunctional PD a simple matter of replacing the top cops? Removing all the bad apples on patrol? Or are both answers too facile? Is there any way to force a change in law enforcement culture?
A. Like the preceding questions, these are excellent, relevant and thought provoking.
Recently retired NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton asserted, in his swan song, that while good ideas can come from a variety of sources, effective, meaningful reform “will never happen without leadership from within.” I believe he’s wrong or, at a minimum, his conclusion is worthy of debate.
In my newest book, To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police, I argue that policing is broken, and in urgent need of a fix—not a tweaking or tinkering but a radical overhaul of the way policing is organized and led.
Internal efforts are welcome, but insufficient. Community pressure is far more promising. But a combination of external and internal forces offers the greatest hope for effective crime-fighting—and for ending racism, sexism, homophobia, corruption, and excessive force in American law enforcement.
I offer an 8-Point agenda for reform. Here are my top three:
- End the drug war, for all the reasons described herein, and invest in massively improved education, prevention, and treatment.
- Embrace an entirely new, community-driven definition of “community policing” which would, among many other features, put citizens at the forefront of police policymaking, program development, crisis management, oversight of investigations into alleged misconduct, as well as all shooting and in-custody deaths at the hands of police.
- Set binding national standards for all procedural justice aspects of police work: hiring and training; discipline; stop-and-frisk; search and seizure; laws of arrest; seized and forfeited assets; collection, preservation, and identification of evidence (think lost or unexamined rape kits); use of force, including lethal force; investigating, reporting, and prosecuting (preferably independently) allegations of wrongdoing and excessive force. To this end, certify all cops—and agencies—that meet these standards. And decertify those that can’t or won’t play by the rules.