Breaking Rank

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

Silja J.A. Talvi

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?

You describe several dangerous situations where you had to employ creative strategies and make split-second decisions involving arrests of very unstable individuals. You didn’t use your gun in most of those cases. 

What do you think about Tasers and their popularity in police departments across the country these days? Are they are a substitute for more skilled, psychological and/​or physical methods that could be used to talk down – or take down suspects? 

You’re on to something here. When I became a police officer in 1966, I was given a gun and handcuffs, and a baton that I rarely took with me into any scene. 

It was understood when you became a police officer in the 60s that if you couldn’t fight, you didn’t belong in the business. It was also understood that you didn’t pull your gun, and you didn’t shoot people.

The reality of my occupation, back then, was that cops weren’t going to get killed on the job. They got killed if they fell asleep at the wheel … which is how the last police officer had been killed, three years prior to when I came on the job. They weren’t dropping like flies. And that made life a whole lot safer for everyone. It didn’t stay that way, though. 

We came to an appreciation that we needed to provide officer survival training. One of the things that we did was to remove the continuum of force that’s so popular in police departments across the country.

Tell me more about that.

The continuum of force says that I’m entitled [as a police officer] to use whatever level of force I need to overcome your resistance, but only that level of force that I need. So, if you come at me with a gun, I pull my gun and shoot you. It’s legal. If you come at me with a knife, I have a choice. If I shoot you, I’m legally justified [in doing so]. But I may not be morally justified in doing so. Maybe you’re 11 years old, maybe you’re infirm, maybe you’re 20 feet away? We get into a lot of maybes. So, the knife begins to pose a lot of decision making possibilities. You also have a breadth of options that historically have been aligned along a continuum: This weapon, this threat, met with this level of force by the police. 

Instead of a continuum, we created, in effect, a circle with the police officer in the middle of that circle. When you are faced with a threat that could end your life or that of another, you are legally empowered to use lethal force. You are also empowered to select from this sphere of tools, techniques, methods, and tactics. Even with a gun, you may make a decision not to use it because this person may be more suicidal than homicidal. Maybe it’s a matter of realizing, I need to get my ass out of here and take cover.” Maybe you wait this out. Maybe you call in SWAT. There are all kinds of options.

But back to your question, I do think there’s a real problem [today] with the potential of police officers resorting to a lethal or less-than-lethal weapons as opposed to other strategies. Part of what I think is happening today is that we’re putting an excessive fear in the hearts and minds of police officers.

To my way of thinking, the safest police officer is one that is alert and aware, and she or he is always ready for what might materialize.

Which is different from being paranoid.

It’s a state of mind. I know what’s going on around me, I’m sensitive to my surroundings. Right now, for instance, I’m doing something unusual because I’m letting you have the cop’s seat in the house. 

That’s funny, because I intentionally took this seat. I never sit with my back to the door, if I can help it. I can see who’s coming and going, and I’m more aware of my surroundings this way.

So, you’ve got my back?

Technically speaking, yes, I’ve got your back. 

Thanks, I appreciate it. 

But you raise a very good point, and it’s one that I understand, as a woman walking down the street and having to be aware at all times of what’s going on around me. Doing that doesn’t feel paranoid, it actually makes me feel more secure in the world and more comfortable with my surroundings. 

That’s right. The more fearless we become in confronting every conceivable threat – from emotional threats to physical threats – the less impulsive we are, the more confident we become, the more able we are to handle situations. 

This is the way of the warrior” that you refer to in your book?


So, if we agree that there’s an overreliance on more violent and damaging tactics toward suspects, as opposed to more effective police methods of de-escalating conflict, we still have to ask the question: Why is this happening? 

I would call it a perversion of officer safety and survival training. Instead of helping police officers to feel more comfortable in their own skin, more willing and able to size up situations and seize the initiative, we’ve taught them that they could well be the victim of a sudden, violent death, and that it really could happen at any time. 

You know the old axiom that if all you’ve got is a hammer, the whole world is a nail. Well, if I’ve got a Taser and I’ve been trained with it and get comfortable with it as a regular part of my job, then what I have out there, in front of me, are lots of opportunities to use it.

For the last decade, we’ve seen a gradual decline in the overall crime rates, and particularly violent crime rates. In light of that, can’t we finally start to consider reducing the ranks of police officers in major cities?

I actually favor more – and better trained – officers for a number of reasons. As an advocate and principal architect of community policing in the country, what I have come to conclude is that police officers are overextended in [big] cities like San Diego.

Police officers run ragged going from one call to the next. It doesn’t give you a time to stop, reflect and think about things. There may be a family disturbance call that has not legally erupted into a domestic violence case. Is there a way, if you spend a few extra minutes with that couple, to prevent an act of violence or even an act of murder? 

I’m a strong believer that police beats ought to be small, police officers need about 30 to 40 percent of their day to be uncommitted time so that they can, in fact, engage in meaningful, joint community policing problem solving. 

Onto another tough subject: The WTO demonstrations, here in Seattle, in 1999. I was on the streets during that time, covering the protests, and these are my observations. I saw a city that had no real inkling of what was about to unfold, and was completely overwhelmed by an experience the likes of which it had never had before. I also saw some protesters acting absolutely irresponsibly. They were, however, very much in the minority. Having said that, I saw our police officers produce a whole new arsenal of weapons that had the effect of truly frightening people, myself included. I also saw countless examples of police officers acting irresponsibly and abusively.

I feel that much of this was glossed over in your chapter on the WTO Snookered in Seattle: The WTO Riots.”

If I get an opportunity in a second edition, I have a list of about 100 things I would change in the book. At the top of the list is my conclusion about WTO: We started it.


The police department. We started it on Tuesday morning. We had had skirmishes, and some problems before that, but the real problems started on Tuesday.

We blew it on Tuesday morning when we gassed non-violent demonstrators. That changed the rules of the game. It was perceived to be unfair and unjust and inhumane. We believed in the decision, which is to say, Yeah, we don’t want to do that, but what choice do we have?”

The demonstrators had made the decision to sit and lock arms, which meant that the only way we could unclog that intersection was to use two officers per one person, and unlink the arms by force. If it came to that, it was understood that the demonstrators would resist through passive resistance and going limp. 

The arithmetic was not in our favor, and it was so overwhelmingly clear that we could not accomplish the mission of unclogging that intersection using that approach.

So, what could we do? We could declare it an unlawful assembly, inform them, and tell them we’ll be using chemical agents, like tear gas, to clear that intersection. I’ve been around police work long enough to know that using tear gas under those circumstances is going to accomplish two things. It will clear the intersection, and it will piss people off and make far more militant, and potentially violent in their reaction against the cops that did that to them. 

For that matter, even against the cops who didn’t do that to them.

Exactly. But here was the rationale: We need even a corridor of that intersection free, so that if we need to be able to drive an aid car through, we can do it.

That was the cop in me – and the cop in me did what a cop would do.

But back to the greater good’ argument. The tactic was not designed to alienate, offend, or even hurt anyone, and it certainly wasn’t intended to produce a much deeper and broader reaction, an anti-police reaction, but that was the effect.

It was wrong and I should have vetoed it. That’s how I feel today. And as the police chief, I should have understood the potential for creating a week’s worth of problems. I didn’t.

And I’m really sorry.

It clearly had a radicalizing effect, so one of the positive byproducts of all of [what happened] is that because of those scenes – day after day and night after night– globalization was put on the map and its sinister effects were exposed. Even then, too much of the attention was, for a very understandable reason, focused on the police response.

Over the last five years, as a private citizen, I’ve become even more of an opponent of globalization. I think the effects have been devastating on the United Sates and many Third World countries. Outsourcing, and the replacement of indigenous industries and economies are among the biggest problems. There’s a documentary, Life and Debt, about [the impact of economic globalization] in Jamaica, that I want everyone to see.

Yes, that’s an amazing documentary.

I want to show that to any American who says they don’t get what the big deal is about globalization. It’s happening here and across the world, and it’s just devastating. It’s horrific what’s happening under the name of globalization.

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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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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