Seattle Confidential

Norm Stamper is poised to become a very unpopular man -- among conservative law enforcement sorts, anyway.

The retired 34-year police veteran is first to admit to -- but not apologize for -- the ways in which he has alienated fellow cops, from his unusually touchy-feely leadership style (focusing on progressive, demilitarized community policing) to advocacy for decriminalizing drugs and prostitution.

And don't forget the whole '99 WTO protests thing. Yep, it's that Norm Stamper -- the former Seattle police chief who oversaw the tear gas-and-handcuffs-happy chaos that ensued after a few thousand peaceful protestors became, well, not so peaceful.

With the publication of his book, Breaking Rank (Nation Books), Stamper is back in the line of fire. In this part-memoir, part-polemic, he decries the state of modern law enforcement and calls for its reform. With sensational chapter titles such as "Why White Cops Kill Black Men" and "Sexual Predators in Uniform," Stamper is clearly unafraid of attracting attention. But he backs up these teasers with thoughtfully weighed opinions and personal anecdotes, many of them reinforced by research.

The author reflects on his own experiences as an officer to illustrate the ways in which America's police force is rotting from the inside out, corrupted by an interior culture of institutionalized racism, misogyny and homophobia. But while effectively ripping the police world apart, Stamper manages to remain honest about his own role in the "boys' club." He confesses to some unsavory, stereotypical-cop behaviors in his early days, from emotionally abusing his wife to knocking perps unconscious. And he's upfront about career regrets (e.g., the WTO debacle, for which he resigned).

Stamper spoke with AlterNet about his ideas for police reform, and the wide-ranging ways it would benefit America, from his home on Orcas Island, Wash.

AlterNet: What kinds of responses to Breaking Rank have you gotten so far?

Norm Stamper: Early reactions have been almost uniformly favorable. I'm afraid to say that, because I don't know what's around the bend. I've had people call and tell me that it brought them to tears in sections; people that know me but didn't know about some of the incidents that transpired [during] my 34-year career. But I also got very positive reactions to the agenda, which is really what I was hoping for.

Your agenda is somewhat controversial.

It's off-the-charts controversial, and in no time, as soon as folks get an opportunity to read it, I'll hear about it.

Have you heard from any fellow cops?

Only indirectly. The chapter entitled "Why White Cops Kill Black Men" produced a response from the president of the Police Guild in Seattle, like, "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" You've just got to read the chapter to get an answer, whether he likes it or not.

I've heard others say, "Oh, this kind of stuff never happened," and all I can do is shake my head at that, because it did happen. It happens far less than it did in 1966 -- the racism, the sexism, the homophobia -- but it's still there, and it's naive, at best, to deny that it exists.

Even those departments [that] have really done measured and effective work over the last three decades to address some of the most intractable issues -- of institutionalized racism and so forth -- you've got to be constantly on alert for signs that our rank and file officers are doing the wrong things, setting bad examples.

When did you start to become politicized regarding the law enforcement field?

Fourteen months into my career. I had made what we commonly refer to as an attitude arrest -- I didn't like the guy, so I arrested him. I wish I could put it in a prettier way, but the fact is that he challenged my authority. He was 19, and I was 22. I stopped him for driving slightly over the speed limit. I really didn't have strong justification to stop him in the first place.

He got out of the car and immediately gave me a ration of shit, and [the] little part inside my brain that was becoming accustomed to this clicked. I [started] trying to find a reason to bust him, and I did. To call it a shaky arrest is to put myself in a charitable light.

What was the reason for the arrest?

I arrested him for being drunk in a public place. Of course, we decriminalized public intoxication absent of other...criminal behavior many years back. But in those days, it was a crime. It was a bailable offense -- if you pay your $29 bail, you don't go to court, and that's the end of it.

But this guy decided to go to court. As I said, he was 19 years old, and I thought he had a chip on his shoulder. I showed up in court with him and I gave the prosecutor a wink and a poke...I slid up and [told] him it was a slim arrest; I said, "You'll probably want to dismiss this one." He said, "What do you mean?"

I said, "Well, he had a shitty attitude."

He asked, "Was he drunk?"

The question in my mind was, "What the hell does that have to do with anything?" That was honestly how I felt. I was like, why is this prosecutor giving me the third degree?

When I said, "No, he wasn't drunk, but he had a really shitty attitude and he called me a pig," the prosecutor glared at me -- I'll never forget this moment -- through his tortoiseshell glasses, and said, "Officer Stamper, does the United States Constitution mean anything to you?"

I was enraged — 'What gives him the right to question me?' He works in this sanitized, air-conditioned environment, and if he's got a question about law or policies he can go to colleagues and books...while I'm out there on the streets in blue line (though it was a tan line in those days).

I was scared to death. I was scared that he would report me to the department, but that wasn't my big fear. The biggest fear was 'Oh my God, I didn't think this way, and I certainly didn't behave this way, before I joined the police department.'

I believed in civil rights, I believed in human rights. I believed, as a matter of fact, that the police were pretty useless and oppressive. I didn't have high regard for the police before I became one, and yet five months down the road I'm saying things and doing things I've never said or done in my life.

So it was a defining moment, which...helped trigger a profound change in me. It reintroduced me to some earlier values, and it radically altered my behavior.

It was at that moment, at about 14 months into the job, that I set out to atone for the way I had behaved. I had to acknowledge how much I enjoyed throwing people around. I had to confess to myself that it was great fun, and what did that say about me?

That vague sense of joy that was associated with screwing people around -- did it go away?

Well, it wasn't vague. To be completely honest, it was unalloyed.

I had turned my back on some pretty deeply-held values...I had to work to -- I know this sounds very woo-woo -- but to get in touch with what I stood for. In that process I clearly did not like what I saw. I was behaving like my father, and starting around age 13, I put as much distance between [him] and myself as possible.

Anyway, it sounds pretty psychological, but that's what was going on for me, and then I became more and more political.

In the book you devote a lot of space to domestic violence, and how you feel it's men's responsibility to stop it. At one point, you mention research indicating that cops are more likely to be domestic abusers. What is it about male cops that makes them more dangerous or inclined to violence than other American men?

For many police officers, they are their professional identity. That's who I was that first year. It's who we are, not just what we do. So if anyone threatens my identity as a cop, I become potentially dangerous.

When I became a cop, there were no women patrol officers. It was a very, very machismo culture. To say it was male-dominated is to understate it. It was exclusively a boys' club, and there was a lot of boys’ behavior going on -- sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment both in the workplace and on the streets, predatory behavior on the part of male police officers and a lot of drinking and carousing and the like. That's a quick snapshot of the culture, and I was a part of [it].

Police officers are granted authority. It goes with the turf; you can't be a cop without exercising authority. Jerome Skulnick talks about [this] in a book called Justice Without Trial -- he describes a police officer's "working personality."

Young men who've been given authority -- a badge, a gun -- and allowed to stop and cite and arrest and question and fight and shoot their fellow citizens, run a grave risk of having that power go directly to their heads, or other parts of their anatomy.

That pretty much summarizes how and why it's easier for cops to become abusive in their personal relationships. 'Who are you to question my authority, wife?'

...And they're also adept at delivering blows that don't show. They know what to do and they're armed, so a lot of police domestic violence over the years has gone unreported. Their victims and survivors are terrified -- they're afraid to come forward, for good reason.

You’re very committed to women's safety. Why is that so important to you?

This event didn't have a profound immediate effect on me, but it was seared into my brain: As I was investigating a dead cat in my hometown of National City, I heard this motorcycle. I looked up and saw a woman driving it. I thought, 'wait a minute, she's not riding on the back of it -- she's driving!'

I was only eight or nine, and I had never seen anything like that. Something clicked. If a girl can do that, why can't she do other things?

My mother, as I also wrote about, was kind of a "Beulah the Riveter" during World War II. She was in the workplace doing theretofore "men's work," and she was the first girl at Sweet Water High School to take woodshop.

I don't remember ever being hugged by my mother, and certainly not by my father. We weren't a close family, and there was a fair amount of violence in it -- my mom could wield an apricot switch like nobody's business, which she did, often enough.

Then a series of partners had a huge influence on me, especially my second wife, who is political as well as literary. She was a poet and a novelist, and came from a lefty perspective. Life with her, especially during the early '70s, really transformed me into a strong supporter of women's rights.

In Breaking Rank, you mentioned that in 1994 you — very ambitiously — compiled the skeleton of a plan to end family violence in Seattle. Do you remember any of your strategies?

When I came to Seattle, my robbery detectives had been assigned to handle DV [domestic violence] cases, which blew my mind. We had done some pretty extraordinary, pioneering DV work in San Diego, so I came from that background.

It was quite a shock and a contrast [in Seattle]. I immediately set about creating a domestic violence unit, and housed it within a newly-created family protection bureau.

So it went from literally zero detectives assigned exclusively to domestic violence cases, to 24 or 25. Along the way we provided in-depth training, sending our detectives to schools and developing our own in-house [program], providing it to all of our patrol officers as well.

Also along the way, we had detectives who developed specialties -- stalking, elder abuse. And we had a 'fugitives team' who went out in full uniform, with some ballistics gear and high-powered weapons, to chase down domestic violence offenders who had skipped court.

I wanted to send a message that domestic violence is a crime -- a serious felony offense. DV prevention and DV enforcement is not social work. And that the offenders who think that they can just walk away from their responsibilities -- in this case, failing to show up at court -- would be arrested, and we weren't going to take any chances of cops getting hurt.

Your chapter about the drug war was one of the most intense. Can you talk about your beliefs about drug decriminalization, and why opposition runs so deep in law enforcement?

Historically, the criminalization of drugs was a revenue-producing public policy. It was, 'If we're going to make money off these drugs, we've got to regulate them.' It began as taxation, and then we started moralizing the behavior -- attaching moral judgments to the use of drugs, and demonizing the drug users. If we were an honest nation, consistent and with any integrity, we would do the same thing with caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, but we don't.

While there are restrictions, certainly, on the use of nicotine and alcohol, both of those substances and the behaviors around them are perfectly legal for adults, yet we know that cigarette addiction is the most egregious form of addiction.

But we're fundamentally dishonest, and in demonizing illicit drug users, we deny medical attention for those who choose to get off drugs. We under-invest in smart education and prevention programs; we deny IV drug users clean syringes in many, many cities. We deny them methadone when it has been clearly established that that's a healthier alternative to heroin.

You have to start with the premise that if tobacco and alcohol, with all of their harms and enormous social and financial costs, are lawful substances, then how can we, in good conscience, deny somebody the right to smoke a joint -- or to snort coke or shoot heroin? I don't do those things, but I believe I ought to have a right to do those things.

From very early on, we teach children that the people who use drugs are monsters and fiends. Well, excuse me, but they're not. Some of them manage to handle it successfully, and many do not. Many abuse the drugs and wind up very ill — psychologically, physiologically, mentally, emotionally. But rather than demonizing them, we ought to be reaching out to help them. If we spent far less money on the supply side of the supply/demand equation, we'd be able to spend much more money on prevention, education, medication and rehabilitation and the like.

What do you think we can do to make that happen?

Get some honest and courageous police chiefs to talk about it. There may be three, there may be one, there may be none, I don't know -- but I have had conversations with mayors and police chiefs, and as I pointed out in the book, these typically take place in the bar after a drug conference, over our favorite drug of choice [alcohol].

I was really impressed, during my days as Seattle's police chief, with a visit to representatives of The Hague. These are judges, prosecutors and high-ranking police officers -- about a dozen of them. We started talking about drug enforcement. They made clear that they continue to go after organized-crime drug dealers, which is terrific and I would never advocate stopping.

But they recognized that drug use is a social problem, and if adults take drugs and behave responsibly under their influence -- i.e., don't drive, don't batter, don't furnish the kids -- they'll leave them alone. If they've got a problem of abuse -- which is fundamentally a medical problem -- then they get help, and the cops are on board with that. That's also true in Canada, where the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police advocated decriminalization of marijuana.

All of this has to do with the obscene level of profit associated with illicit drug dealing. The reason illicit drugs cost so much money is because they are illicit. If government would enter the regulation picture as it has with tobacco and alcohol, it could easily transform a pretty miserable picture into a better one. It will never be rosy, but it can be a much healthier and more sensible picture.

Talk a little bit about the infamous WTO protests. You were Seattle's police chief at the time. What happened? What lessons can be learned from it?

Well, we were snookered. In the end, that's my conclusion, and I take full responsibility for that.

I thought we were prepared. I honestly thought we were going to have minor skirmishes, loud protests, a few individuals -- maybe 30 to 50 to 100 over the course of the week -- thrown in jail for doing things that they ought not do. My fervent hope was that there would be a critical dialogue about globalization in Seattle. In many respects, there was that dialogue -- it just didn't take the shape that many anti-globalization protesters hoped. Nor did it meet the needs of the WTO ministers.

It's tragic that that didn't happen, but at the same time, it sure got the world's attention. I hate to say that it takes that level of violence, tear gas, citizens and cops getting hurt and the chief's reputation being damaged...But if there was a blessing in all of that, it was that the conversation about globalization really got a shot in the arm.

There’s a controversial chapter in your book -- "Why White Cops Kill Black Men" -- in which you describe your belief that white cops are afraid of African-American men, contributing to trigger-happy officers killing often-innocent, unarmed "suspects" like Amadou Diallo. Explain.

While you do everything you can to provide education and training and discipline and supervision and inspection, nothing guarantees that police officers will conduct themselves professionally in a non-discriminatory way.

There has been enormous progress over the years, and it needs to be acknowledged. But we have to accept that ours is a racist society, and that patterns of racism and discrimination affect the institutional as well as the individual. So you may have a cop whose political and social sophistication is advanced, who does not -- at least consciously -- have a racist bone in his or her body, but is still contributing to a pattern of discrimination.

We are affected by our cultural differences, and we're scared to death to talk honestly about race in this society. There are a lot of people who aren't, who are wonderful at it — but for the most part, we do anything we can to avoid having an honest conversation about what it means to be white and what it means to be black, whether it's in a school, or in a stationhouse in a police department.

I didn't find empirical evidence to support this, but I personally believe that white cops are scared of black men. The bigger or darker the man, the more frightened the white cop. I can't shake that; it's a belief I will take to the grave.

Are there ways to alter or eliminate those fears?

It's certainly possible. It requires very purposeful and powerful leadership. We should be continuously examining racial and other sensitive relationships in police work. This isn't something that's obscure or esoteric; it happens daily.

We need to reach out to help educate young men in the African-American community more about the role of police. Johnnie Cochran [spoke about this] in Seattle. He said, "Look, when the police stop you, be courteous. Don't mouth back, don't give them shit. If they ask you to do something, unless it is unlawful, do it. Give them your ID. If they want to check you, search you, whatever, do it, and if you were wronged, call a responsible official and complain."

I used to encourage complaints; it drove my captain crazy.

What are the top three aspects of law enforcement that need reform most urgently?

I would call an end to the war on drugs -- yesterday. I would take the police out of the business of popping people for the possession of small quantities of drugs, and I would devote much of that attention and money to prevention, education and treatment.

Number two would be the selective and intelligent demilitarization of America's police forces. The thing is, we pretty much behave in accordance to the cultural values and norms of our institutions. If I belong to a paramilitary bureaucratic organization that puts the community at arm's length, then guess what? I'm going to be the soldier bureaucrat.

So I would demilitarize and, as much as is logical to do so, de-bureaucratize American's police departments. They need to be much more community-friendly. They need to be the people's police.

The third thing would be embracing an authentic definition of community policing. I'm not minimizing the role of police. I'm not saying -- as I mentioned in another chapter -- to disarm [cops] and take them out of uniform. But the community can exact major changes in their police force if there's shared thinking to that end. In other words, "Wait a minute, this police department belongs to me."

There is very little I can do as an individual, but there's a hell of a lot that I can do as an organized, mobilized community -- citizen participation in policy-making and program development, crisis management, you name it.

I think chiefs need to be out there, visible and conspicuous, and they need to be a living emblem of the reforms and improvements they're advocating. If they're not change agents, then shame on them, because the institution needs change.

But do many of your fellow cops think the same way?

No. There are some change agents that I've had the privilege of working with over the years, but they still represent a pretty small minority. Most of them are status quo, "don't rock the boat."

I never imagined myself as a cop, much less a police chief, and I understand the impulse... It's like, you work your way up; you're careful to please your boss, even if you have to be an ass-kissing "yes man," because you want to get ahead. You finally get there, holding down the best job you've ever had, and you're scared to death of losing it.

Fear...produces more brutality, inefficiency, misconduct and apathy than anything I can imagine. It's fear behind anger, and it's fear that keeps police chiefs from being honest.

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