Fmr. Seattle Police Chief: Police Culture “Toxic”

Norm Stamper was a cop for 34 years and spent six of them as Seattle’s police chief. Stamper resigned over his handling of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests — after he authorized the use of tear gas. Stamper has been a vocal advocate of police reform ever since. He tells Michel Martin how he became aware of what he calls the “dark side” of police culture and how to fix the problem.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, of course, actions of law enforcement are under scrutiny, of course, like never before in the United States as we we’ve been discussing. Just yesterday, police in Washington used pepper spray to break up anti-racism protesters who tried to topple a constitute of President Andrew Jackson, dyed-in-the-wool the nationalist and a slave owner. Our next guest was a cop for 34 years, and he has spent six of them as Seattle’s police chief. Norm Stamper resigned though over his handling of the 1999 World Trade Organization protest after he authorized the use of tear gas. Ever since, Stamper has been a vocal advocate for police reform. And here, he tells our Michel Martin how he became part of what he calls the dark side of police culture and how to fix that problem.

MICHEL MARTIN: Thanks, Christiane. Chief Stamper, thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Chief, you were a police officer for 34 years, the first 28 in San Diego, the last six in Seattle as the chief of police. But do you mind just walking us back and say why you were attracted to law enforcement to begin with?

STAMPER: I became a cop accidentally. I had a friend who was taking the civil service test at the war memorial building in Balboa Park in San Diego, and he asked me if I wanted to accompany him. At the time, I was a veterinary assistant at a small pet hospital and playing rhythm and blues at night. And I passed the test, he didn’t. And he was one of those people who wanted to be a cop since he was three. I had kind of uneasy, if not unpleasant, experiences with the police, was not really much of a fan at age 20 when I took the test. But I passed it and then got sucked into the culture very, very quickly and learned an awful lot about the institution over the years.

MARTIN: So, Chief, when you say you got sucked into the culture, what do you mean by that?

STAMPER: Well, at the time that I became a police officer, it was with the idea that I was going to be different from the officers I had experienced in my young life, that I would not use excessive force, I would never use the N word, I would never laugh at the really cruel jokes that were told in the locker room or the front seat of a police car. But within five minutes, I’m doing almost all of that. I never did succumb to the temptation to use the N word, but it was all around me, and it was something that within five minutes’ time, figuratively speaking, I was saying and doing things that I had never said, never done before. And I’m ashamed of those days. I wouldn’t trade them for anything because I carry to this day a cellular memory of just how powerful that culture is.

MARTIN: Well, you were in it for three decades so you must have liked it. So, what is it that you liked about it?

STAMPER: The short answer is the first 14 months on the job, I was abusing the very people I had been hired to protect and serve, and then I got slapped upside the head by a principled prosecutor who asked me if the constitution of the United States meant anything to me. I was furious with him. I was the one who was out there on the mean streets, San Diego. I was out there during the heat and the cold. Once again, San Diego. But I was in the real world, and he was prowling the hallways of a courthouse. And what gave him the right to judge me and the arrests that I had made? The arrest, by the way, was a false arrest. In other words, I had violated the law, I had violated the constitution, and he wanted no part of that. And he told me so. I went from anger to embarrassment to shame in sort of a breathtakingly short period of time and decided then and there, that’s it. I am going to change, and I did.

MARTIN: So, Chief, you know, this is so interesting, because one of the events for which you are known, in addition to being a kind of a thoughtful critic of this institution, but you’re known for Seattle’s response to the protests at the WTO, the World Trade Organization’s, ministerial conference in 1999 which led to your resignation where you did use chemical agents. I mean, you did all the things that you criticized people for doing. So, can you just talk a little bit about that? I’m sure it’s very complicated and it was a long time ago, but you did.

STAMPER: It is a little complicated, but let’s simplify it. I authorized the use of chemical agents against my fellow Americans, a nonviolent, indeed, nonthreatening protesters who had decided to take a seat in the middle of an intersection that we believed, from a police point of view, was important to us and to public safety. And so, we used that tear gas after warning the protesters for about half an hour. For five years into my retirement, Michel, I am still defending that position. I am talking around the country and throughout North America and Australia, as a matter of fact, and saying, we didn’t have a choice. We had to use chemical agents. That intersection was critical tactically and from a public safety point of view. That was the cop in me saying that. That was the cop in me that authorized the use of tear gas. The police chief in me, the organizational leader in me, should have been saying, wait a minute. Do we really need to use tear gas here? Did we really need that intersection at that moment? Could an ambulance or a fire truck, for example, been able to go a couple of blocks to the left or to the right, to the east or to the west, and the answer, of course, is yes. So, this sort of black and white, single-minded mentality got me in trouble. It produced within me a rationalization that I clung to for about five years, as I said, into my retirement. And then I realized, oh, my God, I am wrong. It was the worst decision, I think, of my career. Certainly, when it comes to tactics in protest situations, the absolute worst decision. I’m ashamed of the decision that I made. I have certainly learned from it, and I’m afraid I just need to say this, the institution seems to be suffering from some kind of a collective learning disability. We presented in vivid terms a how to and how not to police protests in this country in 1999, and yet, over and over, city after city, we’re seeing those same mistakes made. It’s painful to watch. It’s sad to watch.

MARTIN: Well, that leads us to the current moment. As you are seeing, you know, around the country now, there is a call now to defund the police. And what’s interesting about this is that you’re seeing legislatures take this up around the country, take it up seriously. Is that the right decision?

STAMPER: Yes, no and maybe. Sound like a politician or a consultant. Apologize for that. I think what’s safe to conclude here is whether it’s a call for dismantling the police or defunding the police? We’ve got to talk about it. It absolutely must be on the table. I’m a very strong supporter of that conversation. However, painful it may be for the establishment. For civic leaders, for elected local officials, for police administrators, for police unions. It’s time for us to get to that table and have an honest, probing conversation about why it is that policing lacks legitimacy in too many corridors throughout this country.

MARTIN: What would that look like, a radical rethinking of the way policing is done in this country? What would that look like?

STAMPER: I would start with the premise that in a theoretically, multicultural, free and democratic society, that we need to produce a grassroots model of police policymaking, police oversight. Every aspect of police operations should be a result of police community collaboration. Authentic partnership, not some public relations cosmetic version thereof. I’ve seen a lot of incremental change. I’ve advocated, I’ve participated in organizational improvement efforts and strengthening community police relations, and all of that, I think, is highly suspect today because it has not produced the change that we desperately need in this country. So, it’s going to have to come, I’m convinced, from the community in a structured fashion that will make sure that community voices are heard and heeded. And so, when we start throwing these terms around, the first order of business is to define them and to ask whether we’ve got the political will, the personal courage, because so much of this is going to be contested, so much of this is going to be fought, particularly by police unions, but to face the challenges, to face every single obstacle and dismantle it until we arrive at an authentic community police policymaking, decision making, crisis management partnership.

MARTIN: Do you have any (INAUDIBLE) for some of these many men and women on the street though? I mean, particularly after 9/11, you know, they were told they were heroes. You know, you are heroes. I mean, you saw these posters were (INAUDIBLE) all over town, be a hero, right, be a guardian, be a hero. And yet — and now, people are saying, get your knee off this man’s neck, you people are killers. You know what I mean? I mean, it just means as though — do you kind of see where for some people that’s a head snap?

STAMPER: It is a head snap. I’m admitting it to you. It’s a head snap for me because I did not believe that we would see the outpouring of anger at what that officer did back on May 25th in Minneapolis. An outpouring of anger from cops who had been silent or who have, in fact, opposed protest movements, you know, in the wake of Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice and on and on and on. So, it’s wonderful and it’s heartening to see that. I really do believe that we are at a crossroads in policing, and that individual officers — let’s take an officer, for example, who is compassionate, who is understanding, who is empathetic, who listens to people, who genuinely believes in and practices de-escalation, and who has partnered with the citizens on his beat. That officer’s reputation is currently being shaped by people like Derek Chauvin. And that’s unspeakably sad to me, because I know these cops who have done wonderful work. Now what’s going to happen, I believe — I have to say that it’s going to happen is because people inside and outside the system are saying, what we saw when that knee hit that neck and all of that officer’s body weight was pressed against a fellow human being saying that he can’t breathe for almost nine minutes, that we’re saying, absolutely never again, never again. Well, we have seen it since. We will continue to see it, until the system itself changes and recognizes the good work done by good cops and takes truly accountable action to prevent what we saw in Minneapolis and certainly to hold accountable any and all individuals responsible for it.

MARTIN: Your book “To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police” was published in 2016, and then you — and that was your second book. You also — before that, you wrote “Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing.” That was 2005. So, I have two questions to you about this. Do you feel, in a way, that other people are coming around to where you already were?

STAMPER: Back in the ’70s, when I was a sergeant in San Diego, I wrote a senior thesis at San Diego State University entitled “The Community as DMZ: Breaking Down the Police Paramilitary Bureaucracy.” So, throughout my adult life, I have been an advocate of fundamental, radical change of the system of American policing. And, yes, it is gratifying to hear the conversation today. At the same time, I’m asking myself why. And no one individual, I don’t care who that individual is, whether it is the president of the United States or a police sergeant in Waukegan, decides that they want to see change, they can, in that portion of their world, help bring about that change. But what’s needed is some degree of unity, born not of blind loyalty to one idea or another, but rather to a clash of these ideas, until we get to the point at which you can say, yes, I can see this working. I can see…


MARTIN: OK, but this is where I go back to you. This is one of the things that fascinates me about you. I’m not picking on you. But the reality is, you have studied these things…

STAMPER: Oh, please do.

MARTIN: Well, I mean, but you have studied these things for years. You had these instincts, as you tell you, from when you were a very young officer. Really early in your career, you had these instincts. And yet when the time came for you to make a fundamental break with the way crowd control was done, you didn’t do it. And so that’s one of the reasons that I — you know, I ask the question. And we constantly hear for years, for decades, we have been hearing about reform and better relationships. And yet, when push comes to shove, we still see people putting their knees on somebody’s neck, Tasing them, you know, shooting them after they were stopped for a DUI. Why does it seem to not ever come — you know, move from the dissertation to practice on the streets? Why is that?

STAMPER: I will give you the most honest answer I can. And that is that we are so conditioned to organizational life, to institutional life as we have known it, as we have grown up in that system. See, when I grew up in the system, we were using tear gas as something tactical experts would call a force multiplier. You don’t have enough cops to clear an intersection, bring out the gas and apply liberally. That was a part of our central nervous system built into the DNA of the police paramilitary bureaucracy. And it’s an incredibly strong, resilient bureaucracy. It’s also toxic. And it is also amenable today to the kind of radical change that I have never believed possible until this moment, until so many eyes — I get affected by this. Every time I see another image of Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, I get sick. It is almost a visceral thing. I realize this is horrific, an act of murder committed by somebody who wore a uniform similar to the one that I wore, who wears a uniform similar to all of those honest and good and compassionate cops out there. He has, in effect, been the symbol of law enforcement. And if that’s acceptable to us, let’s ride out this storm and go back to business as usual. I don’t think — I know that it’s not going to happen. I’m 76 years old. This is literally the first time in my adult life that I have felt optimistic about change. We’re at a very raw, very, very tough moment, I think, in our history right now, but it’s coming. And it could be a beautiful thing.

MARTIN: Chief Stamper, thank you so much for speaking with us.

STAMPER: Thank you, Michelle.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane speaks with former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen about America’s relationship with the rest of the world and sociologist Clifford Stott about his work advising the UK government on how to reduce the risk of civil unrest in the wake of the pandemic. Michel Martin speaks with former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper about the “dark side” of police culture and how to fix it.