From his early days as a San Diego beat cop in the 1960s to his rise to the chief of police of the Seattle Police Department in the 1990s, Norm Stamper has watched the world change. But while the world has changed, he says, police departments haven't kept up.
Now 72 years old, Stamper resigned as chief in 1999 after Seattle's World Trade Organization protests, criticized by demonstrators for being too heavy-handed and by cops for not being aggressive enough. Retired and living in the San Juan Islands, he published a gritty memoir a decade ago that—in the age of Black Lives Matter—now seems prescient: Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing. His brand-new book—To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America's Police, published by Nation Books—is more solutions-oriented. We interviewed him about his own harrowing experiences, the "blue wall of silence," and how he believes the country can stop police brutality once and for all.
What were your best and worst experiences as a police officer?
The first thing that always comes up for me, on a personal level, is taking the life of a man back in 1972. He had been threatening to kill his two-and-a-half-year-old toddler. Had I had a choice, I would have taken the choice not to shoot him. We get a call. I was a patrol lieutenant, I had just come to work, I was not yet in uniform. And my captain came over and told me what was going on in East San Diego. He laid out a story of this guy having a big fight with his wife and storming off and actually dragging his child out with just one shoe on. I remember that detail. He was issuing threats, that he would kill her and the cops and the kid. And she said he had a .32 caliber gun on him.
So we checked out a shotgun from the armory and went into the field to see if we could find him. He was stopping at pay phones periodically to make threats. About two or three hours into this drama, we spot him. We tried to block him in at a gas station. He ran into the service bay, and I followed him in. He rabbits, takes off through the back open door, and comes back around to the car.
I'm now right behind him, and he's screaming, "I'm going to kill him!" He jabs his hand right at the kid.
Now he's got his back to me. I don't see a gun. And in fact, there was none. He simulated the weapon. But I was absolutely convinced that he had a gun and he was going to kill the child. So I shot him, from a distance of about 12 inches, in the back of his head. He's bloody, and he has brain matter coming out of his head. The sergeant opened fire when he saw blood on me. He thought the guy had shot me. Then I screamed at him to stop.
His son was covered in blood and residue. I lifted the kid to see if there were any bullet holes in him. He was screaming. Then I handed him off to a detective.
It's entirely possible that if the sergeant had gone around to the other side of the car, if he had time to do that, and reached in and pulled the kid out, we might have avoided that fatal outcome. But that didn't happen.
For 10 years, afterward, I'm fine. Well, I think I'm fine. I have my own post-traumatic stress from the incident. I had an episode, off duty, up on the beach in Santa Monica, where I pictured his head exploding, in the clouds at dusk. My legs stopped working and I fell into the sand. I felt like I was in a catatonic state. I realized I needed some help.
Was that help provided or did you have to seek that out on your own?
I sought that out on my own. The department did not provide any psychological services at that time. That would come later. At the time, it was: "Good shot, lieutenant. I guess you really are a real cop." The kind of stuff nobody wants to hear, but that was our culture. It's the opposite of what officers involved in a situation like that need to hear.
On the positive side of the ledger, police officers in certain neighborhoods would adopt a family. They would take them to the doctor, that sort of thing. I've seen a lot of that over the years. And there was one example back in the 1980s, in Southeast San Diego, in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, where officers adopted this elderly woman whose yard had filled up with weeds. They did everything. They did the yard work, and they painted the home. They did everything they could to make life more enjoyable for this woman. It was fantastic.
You mentioned police culture earlier. Can you explain where that culture—which we often see expressed through the macho, bellicose rhetoric from police unions—comes from?
It's generational, over time. The cop culture is one that's built through insulation and isolation. You'll frequently hear cops saying, "I don't go to parties anymore with the people I used to." There are a lot of police officers whose off-duty time is spent in the company of other police officers. Often rehashing these kinds of incidents. It's very common.
So it's very resistant to any kind of outside influence. Police chiefs, superintendents, and commissioners can pontificate all they want, but they're not going to crack that culture. It's systemic and structural in nature. Unless the incredibly difficult task of taking on law enforcement's culture is undertaken, we'll be having this conversation 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the road.
I saw it at play in San Diego and Seattle. When a large contingent of New York officers turn their backs on the mayor, or when they offer really deplorable statements about the president or first lady or any other figure, I automatically chalk that up to the culture. That behavior is valued. It is rewarded. You want to be "one of the guys"? That's the way you do it. It reflects badly on all of the good cops, and there are plenty of them.
In the book, you have positive things to say about ongoing reforms at your old department in Seattle. There's a Department of Justice–mandated process, and its results are being touted as a model for other troubled departments. Do you look at what's happening here and have confidence that it's going to solve the cultural problem?
Well, I don't consider myself an expert on the Seattle Police Department. It's been 15 years since I was there. But I do have a lot of friends within the organization and I can share with you a strong bias: If anyone thinks that trainings are going to solve the problems of policing in this country, they have another thing coming. Training is essential, but it's not enough.
I would hold out a pessimistic view that if training is the principal avenue of reform, it will fail. You'd see in fits and starts some incremental progress; there'd be some success stories, some feel good stories. But the fundamental question is, has the institution—the structure and the culture—changed? Because if not, and that's what gave rise to the behavior, then we will in fact be revisiting these issues.
It is time, certainly, to demilitarize policing. It is time to give the community a much stronger voice. If the invitation isn't forthcoming, then citizens should demand a place at the table. The police belong to the people, not the other way around.
In my view, citizens should play a major role in policies, procedure, training, and selection of officers, because those cops are policing their neighborhoods. As a people, we make a big mistake by ceding 100 percent responsibility for public safety to local law enforcement.
During my first interview with the recently resigned president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, Ron Smith, I suggested the union participate in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day march. Lots of local unions attend and they're always out there marching with banners. He said it was a great idea—but the next year, they weren't there.
Well, of course they weren't. When I was Seattle police chief, we had a white officer who shot and killed an unarmed African American man on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I was living in West Seattle. I drove to the scene. I talked with the officers. I had about an hour to go home, change, and then to go march in the festivities. In that particular case, I made a decision to retain that officer, which was totally unexpected at the time. I made the decision based on the facts and research. I was persuaded, based on everything I knew about him, that he was a good cop. That he was doing quite well. This one fatal mistake could have easily cost him his career. And obviously, the community said it should have. My staff said the same thing: "Give him retraining for sure, but look at the politics of it, you can't possibly not fire the guy."
Anyway, that's a tangent. That same request came from the African American community to the guild later that year: "We have Martin Luther King Jr. Day coming up. Make an appearance. Just come to Garfield High School and participate in one of the workshops. We'd love to have you there and we promise we'll treat you well." No response.
In fact, when I was chief, the department's African American advisory council asked for two years to have the president of the police union come and sit down with them. Because they had concerns about the guild's statements and its resistance to some of my initiatives. I asked, and it was always, "Well, we can't do it this month because of this or that reason." One of the officers—I remember quite well because he was so well informed—he made a call. He came to the council's meeting and said, "I've called three or four times, and I still haven't heard back." Not even a return call. You're trying to build a mutually trusting relationship to the advantage of everyone, but you get that kind of treatment.
But it's like whistling in the dark. They're not going to show up. It sounds to me like Ron's impulse was a good one. But they weren't there.
Is that an example of what some call the thin blue line or the blue wall of silence?
Yes. It sends a message. It's the norm, and it's not going to change unless we do the heavy lifting of structural change: demilitarize, work for the people, and forge true partnerships with the community.
You propose a program of federal regulation of police instead of each local department making it up as they go. Can you summarize for people who aren't policy wonks what that looks like and how it would change things?
I'm using the word "standards," actually. There are no national standards for one of the most dangerous and delicate jobs on the planet. Since there are almost 18,000 law-enforcement agencies in the country and only one Constitution, and since every single officer and agency is required to abide by that Constitution, it's time for the federal government—the ultimate enforcer of the Constitution—to set national standards.
Not for every conceivable police operation or division or section. But for those police practices that we know, from experience, are vital to public trust. Things like stop and frisk, search and seizure—and of course use of force, especially lethal force. I am proposing that we set national standards, with the DOJ taking the lead, working with local jurisdictions—rank and file cops, police chiefs, and local activists—coming together to set those standards. You can imagine how long and confusing and conflict-ridden it would be. Somebody said the other day that it would be impossible. Well, someone said ending apartheid would be impossible. Nelson Mandela said it's interesting how things are impossible until they happen.
And if you look at the civil rights movement or marriage equality, if you look at any of the major changes, people said it couldn't happen. Well, of course it happened. Prohibition ended, and it should again with respect to criminalized drugs in this country. It's time to begin the process of setting national standards, so that every cop in this country, whether in Ferguson or the NYPD, knows what your rights and obligations are with respect to use of force.