Courts & Crime

Former police chief: Too much fear on the force

Police Chief Norm Stamper, 1999
Police Chief Norm Stamper, 1999 MCT

As protests erupt over police killings of unarmed African-Americans, one former police chief is experiencing a painful case of déjà vu.

Norm Stamper’s concern about the abuse of power by law enforcement is rooted in personal experience: He resigned as Seattle’s police chief after the 1999 World Trade Organization talks in that city exploded into violent confrontations between police and protestors.

“I’ll take to my grave the way I handled that,” said Stamper, who served as a police officer in San Diego and Seattle for 34 years. He is the author of “Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing.”

In a telephone interview with McClatchy from his home in Washington state’s San Juan Islands, Stamper warned against what he sees as a shift by the nation’s law enforcement agencies from the “community policing” principles of cooperation and trust-building to an “occupational force mentality.” (The conversation is edited for length.)

Q: Is this a moment of introspection or frustration for the law enforcement community?

A: There is a feeling of aggrievement on the part of many, and a fair amount of defensiveness: ‘Look, I have a job to do, and I am going to make it home at the end of shift, and if anybody is threatening me, I’m going to take care of business.’ To me, that’s an understandable emotion, but what’s not understandable is why police are not grasping the importance of de-escalation and diffusion techniques. They are escalating the prospects of a violent outcome.

Too often you see police officers acting aggressively, and oftentimes prematurely. They either lack the skills or the motivation to engage in human-to-human contact and de-escalation techniques. There’s altogether this attitude that, “We’re the police and you’re not, and I don’t care if you’re a reporter or a citizen at large, you’re not a cop, so you just can’t understand the threats to our safety that we face.”

Q: You are one of the architects of the so-called community policing movement, which emphasizes building partnerships between law enforcement officials and citizens within a community. Does the apparent breakdown of trust between police and the public signal a failure of community policing?

A: Community policing has just completely evaporated. The drug war and the aftermath of 9/11 has taken the sails out of it. The federal government has not helped by providing military surplus (to police departments), which has effectively militarized law enforcement in this country.

The fundamental question we need to ask is, is it possible to be a civil-liberties honoring, community-oriented, humanistic police officer who can work with the community and forge these authentic partnerships where the decision making is truly joint, not unilateral, not arbitrary? Is it possible to do all of that and in the next breath respond to a barricaded suspect who is popping off rounds, to respond to a school shooting, to confront someone who may not know you at all but knows the uniform and decides, ‘I’m going to target you’? I maintain that it is, because I’ve had officers like that.

Q: Is training part of the problem?

A. There is a preoccupation with officer safety. We want our police to make it home at the end of every shift, but their purpose in life shouldn’t be self-preservation, as understandable as that may be. These officers were not drafted into police service. They elected to become cops, and in carrying out the police function, they need to understand they’ve been hired in part to take risks – wise, prudent risks – and to de-escalate situations and diffuse tension. But if their major goal at end of each shift is to make it home, then they really shouldn’t be cops.

There is much more emphasis on officer survival training today, more emphasis on weaponry and tactics at the expense of what I would call a more humanistic approach to policing, where you get by on your wits, your personal communication style, your sense of humor. Are you able to laugh at yourself, or are you taking yourself altogether too seriously? Are you coming across as an automaton, as a soldier?

I think there is more fear in policing today. It operates on a sublimated level. Police officers don’t really talk about fear. . . .

But if you have this occupational force mentality – and I’m afraid that has happened in many police departments – then you’re going to be perceived as a soldier, not a cop. You’re going to be seen as an enemy and you’re going to treat others as the enemy.

Q: What role does race play?

A: Any police officer who denies the existence of racism within the ranks is at best misinformed. That kind of ignorance needs to be replaced with real wisdom about historical racism within policing because there are generations of African-Americans in this country who have been oppressed or neglected by their police departments. Why would they have trust in their local beat cop unless that beat cop goes out of their way to build that trust? Racism is alive and well in American policing. . . .

Too many police officers say there’s no racism. ‘We’re colorblind.’ Well, that in itself tells you there’s a problem. And yet you’ll have police officers saying, ‘I just enforce the law. If you break the law, I don’t care what color you are, you can be white, black or purple.’ I’ve heard it for 40-plus years. Well, it’s time for the institution to call (expletive) on that. It’s not honest. It’s not accurate.

Now we need to do some unlearning. We need to systematically unpack all these decades of institutional racism. . . . When we drill down, we get to fear. We get to altogether too many white cops afraid of black men. Young black men. The bigger they are, the blacker they are, the more fear. We can deny that until cows lay eggs, but the fact is I’ve had too many conversations with too many cops.

Q: What can be done?

A: A roused, organized, mobilized citizenry and enough courageous politicians and police officers can say, ‘Enough, we need to make a change.’ Improving training is woefully insufficient. There needs to be a mindset and a structural change. Replace that paramilitary bureaucracy with something I call a professional police bureaucracy. We need an organizational model that captures the best of what policing is about, and it’s working with our critics as well as our friends.