Breaking Rank

Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper takes on the drug war, domestic violence, community policing, and the WTO

BY Silja J.A. Talvi

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In 1999 Norm Stamper made international news in a most inglorious way, as the police chief of the Seattle Police Department during the WTO-related demonstrations. For this 34-year veteran police officer with a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, it was not his proudest moment. Stamper now says that he made serious mistakes.

Stamper’s resignation and retirement from the force followed shortly thereafter. He moved to a cabin in Washington’s San Juan Islands and began to write a book that would put him in a different kind of spotlight altogether, as an advocate for the legalization of drugs and prostitution, as well as a critic of racism, sexually predatory behavior and the prevalence of domestic violence within police departments.

Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing is a startling and often shockingly raw account of the uglier truths of policing in America. “With each new badge, each new phase of learning,” he writes, “I developed a deeper and keener understanding of this: the most intractable problems of my field–racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and other brands of bigotry, fear, brutality, corruption, organizational ineptitude, even individual incompetence–are rooted in the system of policing, a system that includes the laws police are called upon to enforce.”

In These Times Senior Editor Silja J.A. Talvi recently spoke with Stamper in Seattle.

When did you first start thinking about decriminalizing or legalizing illicit substances? And what got you thinking about this in the first place?

These are concepts I’ve had in mind since the ’60s and ’70s. Especially in the case of drugs, I’ve always believed that these kinds of “crimes” have to be challenged, and that we have to be willing to look at the high price that we are paying–psychically and physically–as officers, in continuing to enforce these laws against individuals.

If I choose to inject, inhale, sniff, snort, or for that matter, put a bullet in my brain, that’s a choice I should have as an adult. Where the line is drawn for society is if I choose to be irresponsible in committing those acts. Then I need to be held accountable for my behavior. For instance, if I furnish a kid with drugs, or if I abuse a spouse, then I need to be held accountable for my criminal actions.

The hypocrisy of keeping the prohibition on these substances going, yet making no moves to ban alcohol as a choice for adults, is staggering. We know there are far greater problems associated with alcohol abuse. Just as with alcohol, though, I think it should be viewed as a basic civil liberty for people to be able to use whatever drugs they want, and second, to treat the abuse of drugs as a medical problem, which is what it is. It is a public health issue, not an issue for the law to deal with.

But you can’t deny the fact that some drugs, such as crystal meth, really are more dangerous than others.

Yes, that’s true. Some drugs are more dangerous than others. We know people are doing meth, and that can be a very damaging and addicting drug. But if we start looking at the potential damage caused by any drug–and on that basis say “Outlaw it and all other drugs like it”–then we get this sort of twisted logic that says you have a right as an adult to do whatever you want to and put whatever you want in your body, except this substance or that substance. It doesn’t make sense for us to dictate those exceptions. It makes sense for us to provide education, information and treatment, but not to tell people, by law, what not to put in their bodies. That approach has clearly proven not to be effective.

How have other members of law enforcement–including other police chiefs–reacted to your call for the legalization of drugs?

I’m not well-liked by many people in the field for saying these things.

It doesn’t seem like that bothers you.

I want people to be provoked and to have them react to the book, and to talk about subjects that are very important to us at the levels of society and community. These issues have a great relevance. But there seems to be a lack of political sophistication and even an intolerance for reasoned debate. Instead, we line up fast on one side or another and proceed to scream at each other. For me, that gets real old, real fast. I have very strong views and I do express them forcefully, but this book was designed to encourage people who care about law and justice to really think about the issues.

I have had police say to me, in person, “Norm, I couldn’t find anything I disagreed with on that chapter on drugs.” But when I ask if they’d be willing to speak about that openly, the suggestion is met with laughter. No, absolutely not, they can’t risk their careers to do that, is what they tell me. If they do, they’ll get labeled a “Stamper.”

That’s actually a term being used to describe people who speak out about these kinds of things in law enforcement?

(Laughs) Yes. We’re very good in this society at labeling people and, in the process, cutting off meaningful conversation.

While you were police chief here in Seattle, how did you feel about the department’s policy of “buy-bust operations,” where certain areas of town were targeted for undercover drug purchases, and where many of the people arrested were people of color?

It’s a complicated issue. I wasn’t then, and am not now, a fan of “buy-bust.” But as a police chief, and formerly as a beat cop, I know how important it is to respond to constituent demands that something be done about street dealing, because we had drug dealers accosting passers-by, people using alleys as bathrooms, and all of it was causing residents and business owners a lot of heartburn.

My perspective, as it’s always been, is that the drug war is a colossal failure and that our entire approach is backwards.

But those drug laws are on the books. If you and your officers don’t enforce them, people start to ask, “Why aren’t you? Are you taking money from the dealers and turning a blind eye to what’s happening?” Police work is full of contradictions even at the best of times. You’ve got to take the position to enforce existing laws. And community policing was always a high priority with me. Buy-bust operations in particular neighborhoods had been demanded by the community because they were tired of the street-level activity itself. And it was unsightly and offensive to a whole lot of people, who, in this capitalist society, saw their property values going down.

One of the things that doesn’t make sense to a police officer is when you say something like, “Shouldn’t you spend time fighting real crime, and not arresting drug users?” What the police officer thinks about that is: “What do you mean, ‘real crime’?” People who peddle or use are, by the definition of the laws that we have on the book, criminals. To the police officers, they’re no less or more important as criminals. We are in the position of enforcing the existing laws on the books.

But since the ’90s, I began advocating quite publicly for the need to change those laws. I spoke to business groups about it, and I was surprised how well they responded to it. I think that people with a knack for understanding supply and demand, inventory, and economics really do get it. I think that’s why you see some of the people in business and economics now who are speaking up in the drug reform policy movement [e.g. George Soros, Milton Friedman, University of Phoenix owner John Sperling, and Peter Lewis, head of Progressive Auto Insurance]. They understand that ours is an extravagantly funded public policy that produces an insufficient return on an economic investment. They get that.

What are you hoping will come out of your efforts, especially where other people in law enforcement are concerned?

My hope is that one ex-police chief saying this kind of thing will encourage an incumbent police chief, somewhere, to say it, even if that just starts with medical marijuana.

It’s not easy to do even that. Bush doesn’t support it, and his attorney general doesn’t support it, but medical marijuana makes sense: It brings comfort to people who are suffering. Until it’s made completely legal, people will break the law to get medical marijuana. Once again, prohibition just doesn’t work.

But we have a long way to go. Right now, I’m sure most people in law enforcement are saying that when I advocate the regulated legalization of drugs, I am taking a stand that is morally bankrupt, naive, incredibly destructive and harmful for our children.

What I will keep saying to that is, “Do you think the drug war is working? Do you believe we are better off today as a result of the drug war with its staggering number of casualties, including all the people in state and federal prisons?”

You know, though, I think the signs are actually more encouraging these days. I think a whole lot of people out there are listening and asking real questions. And it’s far better to do that than keep making statements born of fear and ignorance.

What about your position that prostitution should be legalized? What led you to that conclusion?

Prostitution is more difficult. I know that there are women who are drawn to the sex industry and entered it voluntarily and get quite upset if others say it is a demeaning occupation. If you try to tell these women that they’re being oppressed, they say, “Shove it, I made this choice and I’m happy to work in the sex industry.” They’re the women, like the women of COYOTE [Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, a prostitution advocacy group], who are very politically active and aware.

I also know that many women are not there by choice. It offends my sensibilities to know that a 16-year-old girl could physically or psychologically be forced into the sex industry.

On the other hand, if you’re taking the view that adults can make choices about what to do with their bodies and their lives, you have to have some intellectual integrity on this issue. Then, the more compelling issue becomes the personal safety of sex workers. If you look at the majority of serial killers, they are doing it outdoors and with the use of their cars. Very few states and no major cities haven’t experienced the serial killing of prostitutes. For me, the logical solution is to take it indoors and get it off the streets. Even indoor prostitution carries it’s own risks, but on the whole it is safer.

You disclose a number of very honest things about your experiences growing up. You write about being abused by your father, and then developing emotionally abusive and controlling tendencies in your own relationships. You also admit, early on in your career, to having very racist and homophobic ideas about the people who you encountered in your line of work.

How did you feel having all that out there for the public to read?

It was scary. I didn’t do it for soul-cleansing. I had come to terms with what I once had been ashamed of well before writing it out. I’ve not been shy about talking about this. In the police academy, training, and leadership classes, I’ve made a point of explaining to other police officers that you need to know yourself, where your shadows lie and what those shadows are concealing.

I’m not talking about going into deep therapy. But, to take my case as an example, if I know that if I have a tendency to be emotionally abusive in personal relationships, then I have to realize that the potential is there for all relationships that I have. Being self-aware is critical to effective leadership.

Including leadership in law enforcement?

Yes. That’s what I try to bring to people in law enforcement; the question of who we are and what we’re taking out on the streets. Are we going to be respectful and decent, and know what triggers our fear which gets translated into anger, brittle and defensive behavior? Or are we going to try to be emotionally resilient, psychologically hearty people that police work demands us to be?


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Silja J.A. Talvi, a senior editor at In These Times, is an investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon, Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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