Former Seattle Police Chief: Racism Practiced by Cops Is Common
Norm Stamper talks about cop culture, how contagious and deeply institutionalized it is and how “awful but lawful” has become an internal standard that real community policing has to root out.
In this week’s podcast, Norm Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle who presided over the World Trade Organization protests years ago, talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about the problems cops face and cause…and how they can be addressed.
Stamper points out that police work does not even make the top ten list of the most dangerous jobs. Yet, he says, danger — and fear of danger has created an “us versus them” attitude.
And he explains how police officers become so preoccupied with survival — instead of developing a manner that helps minimize risks — that they actually wind up becoming more at risk for the kind of life-threatening attacks that can happen on the job.
Stamper talks about the lack of effective justice for police officers. How reprimands through the administrative process is no substitute for justice through the legal system, and how the militarization of our nation’s police forces has further alienated police from the community.
His solutions include having citizens involved in police hiring, review boards, station house operation, and creating real community policing, that’s more than just PR.
His great concern is that there are 18,000 different sets of rules for as many police departments, and that there is no standardization in policing.
Norm Stamper is the author of To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police (Published by Nation Books, June 7, 2016)
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Full Text Transcript:
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio Whowhatwhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Every business attracts a certain type. We’ve all heard about the brats of Silicon Valley, the egos of neurosurgeons, the violence of football players, the dullness of accountants. Even at the risk of painting with a broad brush, it’s fair to say that these are stereotypes based on great truth. It stands to reason then that police officers, that those who choose a career in law enforcement also attract a certain kind of talent. On the surface there’s nothing wrong with this. To protect, to serve, to stand in harm’s way or carry a weapon are all unique skills that take a unique kind of individual. The problem is that for so long, so many that have been attracted to law enforcement have embodied aspects of a culture that is either antithetical to, or not in the best interest of their job. Few understand this dilemma better than my guest, Norm Stamper. Norm Stamper has been a cop for 34 years, the first 28 in San Diego and the last 6 as police chief of the city of Seattle. He’s credited as the architect of the nation’s first community policing program, he has a PhD in leadership and human behavior, he served as the founding member of President Clinton’s National Advisory Council and the Violence Against Women Act and it is my pleasure to welcome Chief Norm Stamper here to Radio Whowhatwhy. Norm, thanks so much for joining us.
Norm Stamper: Thank you Jeff, it’s good to be back with you.
Jeff Schechtman: As we look at law enforcement today, has the business of law enforcement attracted certain kinds of individuals?
Norm Stamper: Well, I think it’s safe to assume exactly what you said in your introduction. Namely that there are certain occupational qualities and characteristics that attract certain kinds of individuals to the work. But for the most part what we have found in police work is that we get a cross section, we get people that want to hire on so that they can serve their community; give back to their fellow citizens. We have people that want to work outdoors. We have people who like the security of civil service, a wide variety of motives. But in general, I think in these days we’re hiring pretty much a cross section of our communities, our society, and then something happens once people are welcomed into the clutches of the cop culture.
Jeff Schechtman: What happens once people get imbued in that culture? What transforms them?
Norm Stamper: If they’re not hypervigilant about resisting these temptations, they will become somewhat callous or cynical. They may lose their sense of humor, except around fellow police officers because, you see, only fellow police officers can really understand them. The job is difficult, it is demanding and occasionally as we reaffirmed last week, terribly dangerous. I need to qualify that. Policing has not even cracked the top 10 of the most dangerous jobs in the country, but there’s something uniquely different about the dangers that a police officer faces versus those who fish for a living, or crab for a living, or log, or build homes or businesses for a living. So what really does happen, I think, is that the culture works its magic. You’re going to see things out here, kid, that you’ve never seen before. You’re going to want to react to it with sensitivity and compassion, but that’ll get you killed, so here’s what you need to do. And then they get fed a kind of line of specific tips and techniques that they can employ to make sure that they stay safe on the job. And within the shortest period of time, the most important thing for a lot of police officers is making it home at the end of the shift. In other words, surviving this shift, tomorrow’s shift, surviving for an entire career. And when your preoccupation becomes survival as opposed to reasonable safety, taking reasonable safety measures and developing a presence about you that will help to minimize conflict and tension and risks, police officers actually wind up becoming more at risk for the kind of life threatening attacks that can happen in the business.
Jeff Schechtman: Peter Drucker, the management consultant once said about culture, that culture eats strategy for lunch. Talk a little bit about that in the context of efforts that have been made in various police departments around the country to kind of tease out this aspect of the culture and why those efforts have been so difficult and in fact failed in many cases.
Norm Stamper: I would say, failed in most cases and I love Drucker’s quote. I happened upon that some years back and said “oh my god, he’s nailed it.” So let’s assume for the moment that from on high, the chief’s office, the sheriff’s office, the mayor’s office, we hear ours is a police department that treats all people with dignity and respect. We exhibit sensitivity and empathy and compassion. We are deeply committed to community policing, to developing partnerships with the citizens we serve and on and on and on. In the locker room, or in the front seat of a police car, you have cops saying to themselves and to their fellow officers, “expletive deleted.” That is hogwash. That’s a description of social work. That’s not a description of real police work, and so it is the rank and file cops who essentially define policing from city to city. “We’ll do what it takes, usually, at least try to stay out of the grease, but we’re not going to sacrifice our safety and I’m not going to have some ivory tower police chief or politician tell me how to do my job.”
Jeff Schechtman: It does seem to be that police officers are really squeezed between two places as you describe. One is their antipathy towards management in many cases, what you’re saying about their attitude towards administrators and politicians, and on the other hand a distrust of the community. Those two things playing together really reinforced this culture of: “we’re out there on our own and we have to stick together.”
Norm Stamper: Yes, absolutely.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the phrase “community policing.” We hear it a lot; it’s one of those phrases that arguably is overused today. What does it mean and how can it be effective?
Norm Stamper: Well, I can tell you what it means from my point of view. If you put a hundred cops in a room of mixed ranks and levels of experience, you’ll get a hundred different answers to that question. For me, community policing is the community policing itself. In other words, neighborhood by neighborhood, citizens taking responsibility for the health and safety of their street, their neighborhood. With a whole of lot of help from their partners in blue or tan or khaki, local police officers, community based organizations, the schools, those who work at parks and recreation centers, in other words the community itself – the citizenry taking responsibility for crime prevention, taking responsibility for building a strong relationship with their local police. We tend to think that it’s on the police to build – exclusively on the police – to build positive relations with the community. I think that’s a mistake. I think citizens need to rise up and say “we demand to be treated with dignity and respect. We’ll do everything we can to help you conduct police business and help us in the process. We’ll do everything we can to support you and appreciate and recognize you when you’ve done well, but please hear this. We were not placed here to be your victim, to be demeaned or embarrassed or humiliated. We were placed here to enjoy all of the benefits of a free and democratic society, and as such please hear this. You belong to us; we don’t belong to you.” And the police in America do in fact belong to the people. I happen to be an advocate of a people’s police. So community policing becomes a partnership, the senior partner being the citizenry and police officers bringing to the partnership their uniforms, their badges, their guns, their automobiles and a considerable amount of wisdom about what works and doesn’t work in certain situations. But they don’t bring to the partnership, in my utopian view of community policing, anything that resembles arrogance or superiority, anything that resembles an authoritarian approach to policing or a particular police beat.
Jeff Schechtman: The other aspect that enters into it, even beyond the authoritarian approach is the prejudice that often comes along with it.
Norm Stamper: Well, I think earlier I said police departments obviously draw their candidates from communities, from our society. If our society were completely rid of racism and sexism and homophobia and any other brand of bigotry, we wouldn’t have near the problem we have when people in uniform, in power to protect and serve and required to protect and serve, exhibit racism or any other form of bigotry or discrimination. We have, and certainly the events of last week, the event yesterday, the memorial service for those five officers in Dallas, fresh memories of what happened in Minnesota and in Louisiana, all of that sort of reinforces a notion that, I think, that we’re at a crossroads. America’s racism, as exhibited by its enforcement arm, by police officers, is on full display at this moment in our history. It makes it as really coming out of that awful, awful week, last week. It puts us at a crossroads and I’m very hopeful that having exposed certain of the problems associated with the culture of policing that we can make a U-turn. We can in fact return to an earlier, friendlier day in the relationship between community and police, not to over-romanticize those earlier days of the old fashioned beat cop, but to recognize that even when a cop on the beat standing on the street corner, walking down a business district just chatting with people, that racism was alive and well in those days as were other ills associated with police work, including corruption. What else to say, Jeff? Particularly as a result of dash cam footage of police interactions, citizens’ cell phone videos capturing in living color with sound, oftentimes incidents that if left to the description of police officers and public information officers and spokespersons would say, well that’s not really what happened. I read an account, for example in the Seattle Times online in my home, of a police shooting back in 2010, and I thought oh that’s terrible, that’s just awful but the guy shouldn’t have pulled a knife on the officer and he shouldn’t have advanced on the officer. Well, when the dash cam video was released in conjunction with half a dozen statements of witnesses who were right there, the official account changed. In the end, my former police department to its credit said, this is one of the most egregious, unlawful police shootings that we have seen in modern times in our police department. The department was in fact moving to fire the officer when he elected to quit. Many felt, I among them, that he should have been prosecuted. In Washington state, we have one of the most restrictive laws on prosecuting police officers. A prosecutor has to show malice, or a malice intent and that’s caused our prosecutor to say these are awful but lawful shootings, many of them. There’s a movement underfoot to change that law. But I think we need to recognize that when you rely exclusively on what the police organization is saying, you’re getting only a part of the picture and maybe a very distorted part.
Jeff Schechtman: And doesn’t that really enhance the distrust? Isn’t one of the core issues here as we saw for so many years in Los Angeles for example, the fact that there was no effective justice when these cases took place.
Norm Stamper: That’s exactly right. The community is saying, and this is particularly true in communities of color: Black and Latino, Native American, Asian, Middle Eastern. Communities that historically have had a strange relationship between community and police, and they see, they hear and they feel what’s going on. Year after year, decade after decade, indeed generation after generation, the community says this is what really happened, and yet look what the police department is saying happened. And by the way, on those rare occasions when an individual officer in a controversial shooting is truly held accountable, it’s mostly administrative and it’s not through accomplishing the legal process. Is that an option for citizens? I don’t think so. So you get a police officer like Jason Van Dyke in Chicago who shot and killed Laquan McDonald, or Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina who shot and killed Walter Scott. Both cases – in my opinion – of murder, both officers incidentally charged with murder. Maybe that’s a modest step forward or a significant step forward that we actually have police officers in at least those two jurisdictions being charged. But the community knows what’s going on, and they have a real hard time justifying their own police department’s actions and recognizing that justice is in fact uneven.
Jeff Schechtman: Part of what the problem is, is that in so many of these cases, things have to get so bad before they ever begin to turn around. I mean, two big city police departments where this has been the case are Los Angeles which I just mentioned and even Dallas, which while it’s improving dramatically now, was at one point one of the worst.
Norm Stamper: That ought to give us hope that there’s some wisdom within the community; academics and others who say some agencies are just too big, too set in their ways, the ills too deeply institutionalized to make any kind of a difference going forward. I totally dispute that, but I don’t minimize the difficulty. Injustice is injustice is injustice. You reach a tipping point, it doesn’t take 51-49, but a much smaller level of support for social change and if the campaign, if the struggle, if the protests, if the efforts are smart and on target, we’ll turn it around and I really do believe that we will turn policing around.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that we see going on particularly with big city police departments, and even some smaller cities is the increasing, ever increasing militarization of police forces and how this is viewed by the public. Talk about that, Norm.
Norm Stamper: Let me defend military-like uniforms, military-like weaponry, military-like vehicles, military-like tactics, but only in a very narrowly defined aspect of police work. I am talking, of course, about heavily armed, barricaded suspects who’ve taken hostages, who are shooting high schoolers in Columbine or tiny children in Sandy Hook, or as was the case in San Diego in 1984, slaughtering moms and dads and kids in a McDonald’s. I cite that because when James Huberty walked in heavily armed, he began shooting innocent people and literally shooting anything that moaned or moved after he had completed his initial round of carnage. We had pulled a SWAT sharpshooter within distance, but there were innocent people in his view the entire time. In other words, they would have been caught in crossfire, and that made it really difficult. He finally did get the shot and took it, and ended the carnage. But what if we had had an armored personnel carrier that we could have driven up to the door or even through the door of the McDonald’s and ended that bloodbath earlier? We can talk forever about the altogether too readily available lethal weaponry that our population has access to; this guy had an arsenal and this guy was using it. It would have been nice had he not been able to get ahold of those weapons, but he got ahold of them, and tomorrow the same thing could happen just about anywhere as we learned from the experience a few weeks back in Orlando. So we have to be prepared for that. By we I mean the police, and a community that criticizes the military look and the military mentality without recognizing those relatively few and far between instances where that stuff is necessary, I think is cheating themselves as a community as well as helping to create problems for their police. Having said that, I could not agree more, and I write extensively about it, that police officers should not look like soldiers, should not act like soldiers. Soldiers follow orders for a living. Police officers, beat cops, detectives, traffic officers make decisions for a living; awesomely important and sensitive decisions, peace and freedom decisions, life and death decisions. Our police officers need to recognize that they are not soldiers and if we trot out an MRAP, a mine resistant ambush protected vehicle to deal with protestors in Ferguson with uniform police officers sitting high atop that piece of military machinery and aiming, or at least leveling a sniper rifle at nonviolent protestors, we’ve basically lost it at that moment. We’re no longer a part of that community, we are above that community, we are prepared to wage war against that community. The drug war has brought on so much of this, Jeff. When Richard Nixon famously proclaimed drugs public enemy number one and declared all-out war on them, which is of course a declaration of war against his own people, he dropped the green flag on militarization and police work. We’ve seen it over and over and over again: these early morning, oftentimes predawn drug raids, sometimes hitting their own house, sometimes shooting innocent people or family pets, sometimes officers themselves getting shot. It’s become in many instances nothing more or less than a warzone. We can’t have police officers functioning as an occupational force. Only on those relatively rare occasions that you need that military-like presence and tactics should those appearance and tactics be employed.
Jeff Schechtman: But of course as you’ve seen in your own experience in Seattle, sometimes simply because you have all of that equipment, there is a temptation to use it.
Norm Stamper: Absolutely. Some people call it the boys with toys phenomenon. “We’ve got all this military equipment; we need to use it.” Well, let’s see. The federal government has a program, 1033 Program, where it allocates surplus military equipment and weaponry to local law enforcement, and it doesn’t really cost you anything. You fill out a grant application, you submit it and you start collecting the materiel. What are you going to do? You could do what some departments have done, particularly smaller departments: park it next door to the police facility or across the street and let it rust because you’re probably not, in those smaller communities, going to have a need for it. And so there’s this temptation to trot it out and use it among many police departments. I won’t repeat myself, but there is a time and a place. Most times and most places represent something other than the right time and place. Police officers who are part of an urban centered police agency with a carefully selected cadre of SWAT officers who’ve been very, very rigorously and carefully trained and who recognize the limits of their authority, who recognize the limits of their tools and who apply them and use them properly, are an extraordinary resource to a local community. But they’re disciplined, they’re self-disciplined, and they’re disciplined through team efforts as well and they’ll do a community proud. They’ll end the threat of somebody like the suspect last week in Dallas. Absent that, it’s just crazy making to me to see police officers looking more like soldiers and going out and policing a beat.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the nexus between police departments, law enforcement, and what gets referred to today as kind of the prison industrial complex and the fact that we have so many people incarcerated in America today.
Norm Stamper: Sure. If you think about the drug war, we have now incarcerated tens of millions. I want to repeat that: tens of millions of our fellow Americans for nonviolent drug offenses. We have fractured families, we’ve ruined individual lives, we’ve spent 1.3 trillion dollars prosecuting that drug war and we have fed a prison industrial complex and mass incarceration like you can’t believe. And what do we have to show for it? Drugs are more readily available today at lower prices and higher levels of potency than ever before. So what we’ve got is a colossal failure on our hands that is actually harming the country, hurting people. We take a look at what the police have done in the name of the people and at the behest of the people. Remember that war was declared by a president, and it’s been signed onto by every successive president since. The people have willingly – or otherwise – paid a large portion of their taxes to wage this war against their own people. The police represent the feeder system to the prison system. We are the gatekeepers to the criminal justice system. We don’t make an arrest, there’s no charge, there’s no prosecution, there’s no conviction, there’s no sentence, there’s nobody sitting in jail for 7 to 10 years, or 20 to 25 years or for life.
Jeff Schechtman: Finally, do you think that all this focus right now on racial tensions, on community policing, the problems that police departments are facing, the internal problems, do you think that any of it is going to have any real ongoing and lasting effect?
Norm Stamper: I pretty much wouldn’t get up in the morning if I thought that way. I truly do believe that justice is on the horizon, that we will in fact make the kind of really profound systemic changes necessary to dramatically improve policing in this country and that we will in fact create much more harmonious relationships; indeed, authentic partnerships with our communities if we will commit to two or three basic strategies. One is to redefine community policing so the citizens are intimately involved in all aspects of police operations. They’re sitting in on hiring interviews with a vote. They are overseeing alleged police misconduct cases. They are on shooting review boards for internal officer-involved shootings. They are teaching at the academy and they are generally present in the life of the precinct, in the life of the headquarters building. Citizens, who may be paid a stipend for their expenses, something I support, but are otherwise volunteering their time and their energy and their imagination to the cause of public safety, to the cause of this partnership. So for me, community policing is not cosmetic, it’s not PR, it’s a much more substantive, joint problem solving. Co-policing protests for example, co-planning, co-preparing for them. And the other big step that I think we must take is that with 18,000 law enforcement agencies in this country and only one Constitution that binds them all to a certain set of behaviors, we’re seeing pretty systemic violations of people’s civil liberties, of their constitutional guarantees. Stop and frisk, laws of arrest, search and seizure, and certainly use of force including lethal force. All of that is governed by the Constitution, by key measures of our Bill of Rights and I think it’s time for us to set standards for the exercise of law enforcement responsibilities against a backdrop of the Constitution. I think people would be shocked at the degree to which policing, one of the most demanding and dangerous and delicate jobs is unsupervised, essentially unsupervised in this country. So I think we need to bolster supervision and leadership within our organizations to be sure, but we also need, I think, to demand that our federal government, in conjunction with local jurisdictions, set and enforce standards of performance and conduct. I think every police officer in the country needs to be certified, needs to satisfy all the requirements to prove to us that he or she can do the job. And then stand for decertification for cause. So the federal government would essentially license police officers and then revoke that license if an officer or even an agency refuses to play by the rules. That Constitution, our kind of secular Bible of the land, is such an important document and we need to make it live within American law enforcement.
Jeff Schechtman: Are 18,000 police departments, 18,000 law enforcement agencies way too many?
Norm Stamper: Yes. Yes. I have a friend and colleague, Chuck Ramsey, former chief in Washington D.C. and in Philadelphia and co-chair of President Obama’s 21st Century Task Force on 21st Century Policing says “cut them in half.” I’m not prepared to stake out a number and say, although I would support that. That alone would help. We have departments of one and three people, many of these departments, by the way, are collecting millions of dollars worth of military surplus. To what end? Beats the hell out of me. I mean, one department in Morven, Georgia, has no body of water deeper than ankle deep, and yet they’ve got rafts and waders and all kinds of military surplus. It makes no sense at all. But I digress. I do believe we have way too many police departments and that we need to do consolidation and regionalization and set standards. At a minimum today, we should have regional SWAT teams so that the temptation to trot out the local jurisdictions team for non-SWAT type missions could be resisted.
Jeff Schechtman: Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief, the author of To Protect and To Serve. Norm, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio Whowhatwhy.
Norm Stamper: Always a pleasure, Jeff, thank you very much.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
And thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio Whowhatwhy.
I hope you join us next week for another Radio Whowhatwhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share it and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from motorcycle police (Elvert Barnes / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0)