How to Fix America’s Police?

Norm Stamper’s To Protect and Serve came up…

To Protect and Serve at Amazon.

There are some former police executives that step up into government, or out into the private sector as authors, consultants, and media commentators at times offering up acerbic criticism of the status quo of law enforcement, with so many ideas and plans on how to “fix it.”

This rings a bit hollow. One wonders: if the problems they are highlighting were so bad, for so many years of their tenure, if the profession were so corrupt, why they did not simply leave in protest, offer their exposes then rather than continue to be party to the system that they now rail against?

Or, when in the very positions necessary to make change, why they did not do so?

Norm Stamper’s book can be viewed in that light. It styles itself a prescription for the ills plaguing American policing. Instead it is a scattershot and inconsistent critique that highlights some valid points while broad-brushing ascribed motivations  and actions of police officers and agencies across the nation both generally and specifically – supported here with speculation and supposition and there with sweeping generalizations.

For example: “In these pages I will focus on how the institution [policing] is organized, and how that structure -anachronistic, paramilitary, rigidly bureaucratic – produces a workplace culture that serves as a breeding ground for racism, corruption, sexual predation, brutality, unjustified lethal force, and excessive militarism.”

He casts the entire profession as a barrel of bad apples, saying that the bad ones  eventually rot the whole barrel, and that the fresh, good apples inevitably rot along with the others. He gives personal examples from his own career, from rookie days routinely and enthusiastically violating people’s civil rights  to his chiefly blunders, that leave one feeling that a goodly portion of this work is mainly about mischievously telling “war stories” while at the same time assuaging his own guilt over how he acted, both at the beginning and at the end of his career. * (see note below)

Inconsistently, despite the barrel full of bad apples, he claims there “countless examples” in his career of cops acting professionally, compassionately, and courageously.

So which is it?

Stamper left law enforcement a full seventeen years ago, in the wake of his role in the World Trade Organization riots. I was on the job then, in the same state, and in that intervening seventeen years – all of which I have worked in  “boots on the ground” Patrol and SWAT assignments, not promoting up the chain to a desk job and getting those “fatter and fatter paychecks” he accepted but now derides – and I can attest that there has been a sea change in both how the profession is conducted and the kind of things officers face. Taken together, these unfortunately give the impression that rather than actually being interested in sharpening the tools of modern American law enforcement, Stamper seems more interested in grinding rusty personal axes down to blunt their edge.

Overall, some valid points are made, and some would require qualification based on his lack of currency on the job. Remember, within law enforcement, police administrators and executives are rarely subject matter experts and not considered as such, especially those who rose through the ranks rapidly and spent little actual time in the field or with significant specialty time (that is not as a supervisor). Executives and administrators have a different role: think more budgets, resources, personnel management, and office politics.

With so many changes in law, in procedures, and in tactics as well as in public expectations, one will find that administrators’ perspectives can be based on paradigms that may have existed during the (few) years back when they worked as beat officers – sometimes even decades ago – rather than on what is actually happening now. For example, many have never worked with or used a Taser, were not officers in the years prior to the legalization of marijuana, and have not experienced the utter failure of the mental health infrastructure or the resultant changes in police approaches and tactics to this mental health crises being implemented, and so on.

Many of the suggestions he offers are already in place in many agencies. Certainly they are best practices touted nationally.

Others still aren’t.

Apropos this blog here, he gives excellent comments about officers bodies being their most critical tool, and their need to be both physically fit and skilled at empty hand combat (which is actually NOT in place in any agency anywhere), and that officers so skilled are actually less likely to use excessive force. But he then shows lack of insight into the very “optics” he elsewhere invokes when he declares that department approved lists of fighting arts “should include boxing.”

Just what we need. More video out there of cops repeatedly punching people in the face…. Get to a Judo, wrestling, or jujitsu academy instead.

The book is otherwise a mixed bag. He is weakest in his criticism of some shootings that have occurred, though not in others. Weak because he either does not appear to understand that although he can see the tactical alternatives in hindsight, that may not be so evident in the initial incident for a plethora of reasons, and is not the legal the standard for reasonable force.

His thinking is in the right place – I agree that many of the incidents he singles out may have been avoided, other than the very few actual crimes – but he ascribes this to officer decision making, incompetence, and criminal acts that simply are not in evidence other than in his suppositions. It would have been far more constructive to lay out alternative scenarios in which – based on the information the officers had at the time – what he thinks they could have or should have done differently. In other words, he should have offered a tactical debrief, avoiding the ad hominem attacks.

Maybe he can’t do that, because he’s just been out of the game too long. The most damning example of this is when he rather jocularly recounts his response to reporters when asked about what “they” should have done at Ferguson, and he wonders why they are asking him, he was responsible for the WTO Riots.

Way to pass the buck. If he came at this from a different angle, he’d have a lot more to offer. He offers suggestions later, but its too little, too late, and is frankly nothing different than what is already being trained to officers in cities facing large numbers of demonstrations (like Portland, Oregon). It seems that unlike Stampers war stories, the profession has been moving forward in those seventeen years.

His fundamental inconsistency reveals itself in his final fixes: he admiringly points to change agents in the law enforcement world with a liberal-progressive perspective, while dismissing those on the conservative side, calling, for example, Sheriff David Clarke “well spoken” but “probably the most dangerous of them all,” at the same time superfluously noting hat Sheriff Clarke is African American…

Seems to me that in some circles such language would be and has been called “racist.”

He argues that the Federal government should step in with mandates, which are not all that bad, but when juxtaposed with his frequent mention of the police killing of Michael Brown, he does not mention that the incident was investigated not only by local authorities but by the Department of Justice, and no criminal wrongdoing was found.

And considering the highly controversial election we just had, and the cloudy role of the FBI in same, including whether it has been compromised from within, one wonders whether having the Feds in charge of local police would matter at all to Stamper or those similarly minded if the findings in a particular case did not meet their narrative.

One suggestion is worthwhile – that to establish a national Institute for the Development of Police Leaders. This effort would target not administrators and executives but those rank-and-file practitioners still on the job; that is on the street. Officers, field supervisors, and the like. These would be trained, given continuing education, and be embedded in agencies as “change agents.” The reason I like this idea is that those officers – at least those with the courage of their convictions and a willingness to challenge not only status quo within their agencies, but the skewed ideas of those in management buying into present narratives and proceeding from the idea that their police stations are a den of thugs, abusers, racists, and sexual predators.  (Stamper leaves out nothing in excoriating his former profession.)

These men and women can and will put to rest the idea that law enforcement, and those who are called to it, are “broken” and “need fixed” and offer mentorship and guidance for those who may lose their way, those who are overwhelmed with the job, and those who are disillusioned and cynical. This model may work. I’ve had an inkling of it when presenting the Blue Courage program to our agency – albeit with badly needed modifications – and at the very least it created lively discussion and self-assessment. The vast majority of officers it was presented to “get it.”

And its a very different picture than the one Stamper paints.

So, if you are of an activist or anti-police bent, this book will confirm everything you’ve ever thought negatively of the police. Sadly, that is equally true of some police executives, and I believe this book will garner a lot of attention in those circles, despite its obvious pandering to todays current narratives.

If you are a police officer that wonders what-in-the-hell is going on and why some people think of you the way they do – reading this book will be enlightening, and maddening.

Knowledge is power, however, and seeing yourself how others see you – even the small percentage of those who see you through this fractured lens – can be valuable. It will allow you to work against the current stereotypes that former executives like Stamper deal in and profit from, and avoid some of the mistakes and behaviors that sadly, some fellow officers exhibit, and that give people like Stamper all the brush they need with which to paint the rest of us.


Some insight may come from a Seattle Times article on his career in policing, gleaned from Wikipedia and not appearing in this book (emphasis mine):

 Norm Stamper’s Police Career:

1944: Norman Stamper is born in San Diego, Calif.

1966: Stamper joins the San Diego Police Department.

1971: Stamper becomes San Diego’s youngest lieutenant at 27 years old.

1972: As a police lieutenant in San Diego, Stamper shoots and kills a man who was threatening a 3-year-old child.

1975: Stamper becomes the San Diego Police Department’s youngest captain at 31 years old.

February 1994: Stamper becomes Seattle police chief, succeeding Patrick Fitzsimons.

June 1994: Stamper marches in uniform during Seattle gay-pride parade, drawing criticism because other police officers were prohibited from participating in their uniforms in a Christian-related event.

February 1995: After a year on the job, Stamper restructures the department into six central areas, including the formation of three new bureaus. Stamper said that, in part, the changes are being made to allow quicker responses.

February 1998: Stamper criticized for police staffing and heavy overtime. Some officers claim the situation jeopardizes their safety.

April 1998: Stamper cuts short a vacation to try to calm a department angry about a newspaper column in which he describes his experience in a racist and intolerant “cop culture” while working as a San Diego officer. Stamper was quoted as saying he “enjoyed the morbid humor, the racist humor and the gay bashing” during his early years.

Stamper was also quoted saying there since has been a fundamental change in police culture, and that his own early outlook in no way reflects his views today.

March 1999: Allegations come to light that veteran homicide Detective Earl “Sonny” Davis Jr. pocketed $10,000 in cash taken from a sewing cabinet while he and other detectives were investigating the fatal shooting of an elderly man who had barricaded himself in a South Seattle apartment and wounded an officer. Davis returned the money to the cabinet the next day with the help of Sgt. Don Cameron, but only after Davis’ then-partner, Cloyd Steiger, angrily confronted the two men, according to Steiger.

June 1999: Stamper and the department come under fire after the department’s uninvited – and unwanted – videotaping of a news conference during which community, civil-rights and church groups announced that a public hearing would be held to address claims of police abuses, mainly against members of minority groups. Stamper later apologized, saying the police cameraman was wrong not to identify himself and announce his intentions.

August 1999: A citizen-review panel looking into alleged theft of $10,000 from a crime scene issues stinging criticism of Stamper, saying the chief has become disconnected from the daily operation of his department, leading to serious breakdowns in internal investigations.

Nov. 3, 1999: Stamper supervises a police dragnet sweeping through a Wallingford neighborhood after a gunman kills two men and wounds two others at a Lake Union Shipyard. The assailant eludes police.

Dec. 5, 1999: Stamper and Seattle Mayor Paul Schell are caught in the middle of growing criticism over their handling of the World Trade Organization riots. Protesters allege police violence; officers claim they were ill-prepared.

Dec. 6, 1999: In a letter to Mayor Paul Schell, Stamper announces he is retiring effective at the end of March.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights




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