If there's a second edition of his book, Breaking Rank, former San Diego cop Norm Stamper already has in mind one clarification—what exactly does he mean when he writes “the Neanderthal spirit is alive and well in America's police departments”?
It's a blunt statement that, to some extent, runs counter to the then-and-now approach he uses to describe police culture 20 or 30 years ago versus what it's like now. Then: recruits, hooked up to lie detectors, were asked if they ever had sex with a man; female cops were referred to as “split tails”; and racial slurs were explained away with the “everyone does it” excuse.
And now? After all, Breaking Rank's subtitle promises “an exposé of the dark side of American policing.”
“I think a number of police departments, San Diego's being one of them, Seattle being another, have made demonstrable progress on all those fronts, particularly on racial issues,” the soft-spoken Stamper said in an interview last week, shortly before leaving his cabin home off the coast of Washington state for a book tour. San Diego and Seattle are the two cities he knows best: the former where he cut his teeth, starting at age 20 as a beat cop, eventually working his way up to second-in-command; and the latter where he ended his career—Stamper was Seattle's police chief during the 1999 World Trade Organization riots.
Unlike Plato's Guardians—the elite, idealized police force in The Republic that lives separate from those it serves—Stamper believes law enforcement personnel largely reflect their society. Hence, it would be naïve to think all cops are infallible paragons of morality. “If ours was a society free of prejudice and bigotry,” he said, “then we could safely conclude that police departments don't have a lot to worry about and the communities they're serving don't have a lot to worry about.
“Power has a way of going to the heads of young people,” he added. “It certainly did in my case.”
The young officer who once put bad guys in choke holds, whispering, “You're gonna die, asshole,” right before they passed out, eventually went on to become the San Diego Police Department's “resident intellectual,” earning a doctorate in leadership and human behavior, studying in-depth how to teach young cops to be personally accountable for their actions and to learn from their mistakes, especially mistakes borne from what Stamper refers to in his book as “the most intractable problems of my field”—racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, brutality and corruption.
His interest in deconstructing policing's systemic problems led then-Chief Bob Burgreen to promote Stamper to assistant chief in 1988, tasked with smoothing over police-community relations. In 1993, he was passed over for police chief, in favor of current mayoral candidate Jerry Sanders, who at that time had overwhelming support from the police officers union (Stamper and his progressive beliefs didn't).
But for someone whose role was that of peacemaker and problem-solver, the book tends to validate beliefs held by law-enforcement watchdog groups. Stamper, for instance, calls out a couple of cops who acted particularly poorly during the WTO riots. But his criticism always comes with solutions for change.
When asked whether he fears the book could fuel anti-police sentiment, Stamper said he hopes, rather, that it opens up a dialog, preferably in the form of more community-police forums. This sort of dialog, he said, is “long overdue.”
“I'm talking about conversations with those who are critical of police practices. We tend to stigmatize them, categorize them and marginalize them and ignore their complaints.” Likewise, though, it's not up to law enforcement to initiate that conversation.
“There are some people who have a legitimate complaint who are screaming so loud they can't be heard,” he said. “That's not smart; that's not a very good tactic. Cops are human and the more hostile the communication, the more likely it is that it will generate some defensiveness.”
The book also shows there are officers who positively affect the communities they police—San Diego, in fact, comes off looking pretty good. In a chapter describing this city's early foray into community-oriented policing, Stamper tells the story of a young cop who went from believing blacks were responsible for the majority of crimes in his beat (statistical evidence proved this to be a grossly incorrect assumption) to making an effort to reach out to one of the most problematic young men on his beat-a relationship from which emerged a mutual respect that ultimately saved the young cop's life.
When asked why San Diego seems largely above the problems currently found in other police departments, Stamper said he's seen San Diego's “demonstrable, measurable progress over the years.”
“Does that mean it's arrived?” he added. “No. I don't know that [any] police department has. I think there are underlying structural problems that will give rise to continuing instances of misconduct.”
Misconduct isn't systemic, he said, “but I do believe the structure tends to make those, quote, ‘isolated cases' or tragic events depressingly predictable.”
He'd like to see police be more forthcoming with the public when it comes to investigations into officer misconduct and police shootings—currently that information is withheld from the public. Police officers “have a right to a certain degree of privacy,” he said, “but the bottom line is that policing is the public's business and the public has a right to know much more about what's going on in their police department.”
The book also delves into the “socially unacceptable emotion in police culture”—fear. “Most abuses of power flow from fear,” Stamper writes.
Techniques for managing fear aren't part of police training-and they should be, Stamper said. “If we can in fact discern fear in ourselves, if we enhance our own self-awareness—our consciousness of what's going on inside our bodies—and recognize fear for what it is, we can in fact take steps to reduce it.
“I'm convinced that behind most compulsive police actions or most angry police actions is fear,” he said.
But for all his observations on police culture and the psychology of policing, the book's money-shot chapter is the one on the WTO riots—a behind-the-scenes look at the training, political maneuvering and gross underestimations of protestor resolve that led to an almost complete law-enforcement breakdown.
Stamper writes: “I thought we were ready. We weren't. I thought protest leaders would play by the rules. They didn't. I thought we were smarter than the anarchists. We weren't. I thought I'd paid enough attention to my cops' concerns. I hadn't. All in all, I got snookered. Big time.”
Despite his 30 years climbing the ranks of San Diego's police force, will those four days in Seattle be his legacy?
“I think for many people, it will be,” Stamper said. “Legacy is in the eye of the beholder and if one is talking about my legacy, I have as much of a right to define it as others do, but I think the truth is, many people will see that as my legacy. Spend three and a half decades in the business and you get one week that goes south on you and that becomes the defining moment.”
Norm Stamper speaks at the City Club at noon on June 17 at the Holiday Inn on the Bay. $30 includes lunch. RSVP 619-687-3580. He'll also be at Barnes & Noble, 10755 Westview Parkway, Mira Mesa, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 21.