Podcast | Seattle’s former top cop on the future of policing

The city’s police chief from 1994 to 2000, Norm Stamper discusses tear gas, ridding racism from cop culture and defunding the police.

Protesters stand before line of police

A woman faces off with Seattle Police Department officers during protests across downtown Seattle, May 30, 2020. A wave of protests swept across the U.S. following the death of Floyd. Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with his murder. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

In the week's since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, the conversation around policing in America has taken a drastic shift. City leaders across the nation are responding to a sense of injustice, or maybe sensing a shift in public opinion, and considering reforms that were far outside the mainstream just days ago. As activists encourage them to "Defund the Police," some have signaled that significant change is coming. While the exact shape of that change has yet to take form, the apparent goal is to reengineer our idea of public safety, investing in at-risk communities, collaborating with those communities and replacing many police officers with specialists in social and mental health services. On this week's episode of Crosscut Talks, we explore what these leaders are seeking to discard and what will take its place with Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief and reform advocate. Plus, Crosscut city reporter David Kroman tells us what impact the movement to defund the police is having on Seattle City Hall.


This transcript may contain errors. Be advised that the audio of this podcast serves as the official record.

Anonymous Speaker: [00:00:00] This episode of Crosscut Talks is supported by Alaska Airlines.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:00:09] Hey, welcome to Crosscut Talks. I'm Mark Baumgarten, managing editor at Crosscut.

Bad apples. We're used to hearing about bad apples in this country, often in cases of police misconduct. Faced with the brutality or criminality of a single officer or group of officers, we're encouraged not to judge other police against them. They are bad apples we're told. And so there's no need to throw out the whole bushel.

That argument, it appears, is becoming less and less convincing. In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Americans in cities across the nation have been protesting racist policing. And in many cases have been brutalized themselves while protesting that brutality.

As videos of officers responding to protesters with chemical agents, brute force and batons have proliferated, so too have calls for city governments to defund or dismantle their police forces, and cities are beginning to heed the call. LEaders in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York City have all promised that changes on the way. Guiding these calls for radical reforms is the idea that it's not the individual, but a corrupt culture that results in abuse of power.

This week on Crosscut Talks. I'll be speaking with Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief and an outspoken advocate for police reform. Having served over three decades in uniform, Stamper has been steeped in the police culture that he says must change. We talk about how the so-called brotherhood of policing can shape an individual officer and whether he believes those now directing reforms are going in the right direction.

Then later I'll talk to Crosscut city reporter David Kroman about how those calls for reform are playing out at Seattle City Hall.

First, though, I want to remind you that Senator Patty Murray will be joining us for a live Crosscut Talks: Virtual Session on Monday, June 15th at 10:30 AM. I'll be asking the questions and Senator Murray will be talking about the considerable challenges currently facing the nation and Washington state. FOr more information, and to RSVP, go to crosscut.com/events.

And I've got a couple of programming notes here. So, next week's episode will feature a conversation with Dahlia Lithwick from Slate's Amicus podcast. She'll be talking with me about the most important cases that the Supreme court will be ruling on in the coming weeks. Also right now, I'm prepping for an interview with John Dickerson, from CBS News, who will be talking about his new book, The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency.

If you have ideas on what I should ask, John, send them to talks@crosscut.com.

Okay, on with the show.

I'm speaking now with Norm Stamper. From 1966 to the year 2000, Norm was a police officer, first with the San Diego Police Department where he served for 28 years. And then as Chief of Police in Seattle, where he oversaw the police response to demonstrations at the World Trade Organization's Ministerial Conference in 1999, also known as WTO. It was there that he oversaw the deployment of tear gas on protesters, an action he would later apologize for. In 2016, he wrote 'To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America's Police,' identifying the ills of the nation's police culture and prescribing a new course for law enforcement in this country. Norm, welcome to Crosscut Talks.

Norm Stamper: [00:03:49] Thanks. Good to be with you.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:03:51] So there are two conversations that are happening right now. One is around the reforms needed in the way that police treat Black people and other people of color. But there is another conversation about the way that police approach protests in general. And, I mean, you have experience with dealing with protests to say the least. What's different about the way that police are approaching protests now versus the playbook that you inherited when you were preparing for the WTO?

Norm Stamper: [00:04:21] Uh, this is painful to admit, uh, but what I'm seeing is, is essentially with, with room for exceptions and plenty of good examples to the contrary, what I'm seeing is essentially a repeat of what I saw in the sixties in San Diego, what I experienced in Seattle in 1999, and it begins to suggest that our institution is suffering from some kind of a collective, uh, learning. disability.

One of the things that's most troubling to me is that having made the biggest mistakes of my career during the Battle in Seattle, reflected upon them, analyze them, written about them, talked about them, apologized for them. I think I have a pretty good idea and many others do as well about how protests should be handled, but as an institution, we're systematically ignoring that kind of what I would call, I guess, a prescription.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:05:26] Hmm. You know, one of the things that is being repeated a lot is the militarization of the police and that during protests, we really see this militarization.THat is often  credited to 9/11 and the 1033 program and the adoption of, of military equipment, um, in the last couple of decades. Yet, what you're saying is essentially that, that the things that are the problem are really go back 50 years, they don't go back 20 years. And so I just wonder what you think about that critique that in the last 20 years we've seen the, an increase of militarization. Whether that's a part of the problem or that the problem really has a deeper root.

Norm Stamper: [00:06:11] I'm convinced that the problem has deeper roots.

I would never argue against an analysis that we have seen a vast increase in militarization as a result of the 1033 program, which is basically the federal government awarding to local jurisdictions military grade military equipment -- not military grade, but actual military equipment and vehicles and weapons and the like -- and that of course began before 9/11, but it really picked up a lot of steam in the wake of 9/11.

I think we have to go back to the beginning of the drug war, even further back and see evidence of this particular mentality that leads to this problem. But certainly with the advent of the drug war in the early 1970s, Richard Nixon declaring, uh, you know, essentially drug use public enemy number one and waging war against our own fellow citizens and asking the police to be the frontline soldiers in that. WHen you wage war against anyone, the person you are waging war against is the enemy. And what that did, of course, is reinforced the notion of us versus them. We versus they. The police basically as the enemy of the people.

And while that may not be true in a white middle class neighborhood or a community, it is so definitely and tragically true in communities of color, dealing with young people, poor people and particularly Black people in this society.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:07:53] Hmm. You mentioned the drug war. Um, you mentioned race just then, uh, we know that the drug war was really predicated on, that it was about race. I mean, you know, recent reporting has, has shown that. So that brings us back to this other, this other conversation that's happening right now. I'm curious, in your opinion, is racism the root cause here, or is racism a part of the problem?

Norm Stamper: [00:08:21] I think racism, and I'm referring to sort of commonly accepted definitions of systemic or structural racism engineered into our society, engineered into the culture of the community police relationship, is just one example. But it applies literally, I think across the field. Racism is also a byproduct of the institutional arrangements of American policing. Policing is paramilitary. It is bureaucratic. It is top down. Uh, it creates the kind of organizational culture in which you get cops saying, We're the cops and you're not, and we will decide what's best for you. Best for the community. That is inimical, I think, to the interests of a free and democratic society, where we set aside a group of people, uniform them, arm them, put them in conspicuously marked automobiles and tell them to go out and fight crime, uh, which means basically fighting people.

There are very serious crimes in our society. There are home invasion, robberies, there are school shootings, there are drive-by shootings. There are children at great risk, uh, in, in so many different contexts. I think it's foolhardy to ignore the public safety threat that any industrialized society experiences, but the way we have responded to that really from the beginning of the institution, which has its origins in the slave patrols, gives you an idea that these people that we've set aside from the rest of society are engaged in work that does not have legitimacy and credibility with those who have historically been oppressed and or neglected by, by local law enforcement. So we're looking at a deep-seated thorny institutional reality that unless we're willing to change it, which means enormous, hard work built on imagination and partnership and creativity and, and working with the community to create a new mechanism for achieving public safety while honoring the constitution of this country, is that unless we're willing to do that, we'll be back having the same conversation in three months or three years. That's the reality. It has happened after Laquan McDonald, it's happened after Amadou Diallo, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland. You go on and on and on. That list is depressing and so, so sad because, well, every name that I mentioned and hundreds of other, uh, others do represent, I believe, killings at the hands of police that could have been prevented.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:11:21] Norm, I'm curious if you talked about race this way at all when you were a police officer.

Norm Stamper: [00:11:27] The short answer is yes. When I became a police officer, it was with the attitude that I'm going to be different, frankly, from the cops that I had seen from some of the officers I had interacted with. I am not gonna be a racist. I am not going to be, okay, brutal. I am going to be sensitive and responsive and responsible, and I'm going to help people. I'm going to give back to my community. I had all of these intentions and I became a cop. And in five minutes I'm doing and saying some of the very things that I had seen that I had judged bad.

And you know, for a time I wondered how in the hell did that come to pass? I wouldn't have raised those questions, but for a principled prosecutor who slapped me upside the head and asked if the Constitution of the United States meant anything to me. This is, this is a guy that I got very angry about, uh, when he said that and then my anger turned to embarrassment and finally, within a very few seconds, really to shame. And I, and I'm thinking, Oh my God, how did this happen? And the short answer is, the culture.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:12:43] To me. It's really interesting how a cultural problem spreads to individuals. What was the incident?

Norm Stamper: [00:12:50] The incident was an unlawful arrest, uh, by yours truly. I arrested a man for a violation of 647F of the California penal code, which is drunk in a public place and unable to care for your safety or the safety of others. The only problem was he wasn't drunk. The problem was I, I, I, I'm assuming I need to censor myself here, but this ...

Mark Baumgarten: [00:13:16] No, speak freely.


Norm Stamper: [00:13:17] Okay. The problem was this guy was an asshole. And he questioned my authority. Who gave him the right to do that, just because he was an American citizen and maybe knew something about are our laws? But I wasn't about law. On that occasion, I was about redressing a personal grievance that I had against this guy because he challenged my authority, which meant that he challenged me.

You see it wasn't just the uniform and the badge. I had become the uniform and the badge and the gun and that conspicuously marked automobile. I was an embodiment of authority. So when he challenged me, he was really, it was an existential kind of thing. He was challenging my very identity. I had become a cop and that's one of the greatest problems with the culture is that we internalize authority and we ignore the value of learning to listen to our fellow Americans of learning to collaborate, solve problems, fight crime, you know, respond to all of the 911 calls and generally do police work in a way that is designed to prevent problems, not cause them. And it's also, I think, important, Mark, to point out that this was 1966, Watts was the year before, uh, police across the country, certainly up through Kent State and beyond, engaged in war time, essentially war time behavior. We had campus unrest. We had antiwar demonstrations, we had civil rights insurrections, and we had the police on the front lines of these pitched battles between government, if you will, and, uh, activists. It is there for example, that I learned that if you don't have enough cops to do, you know, to clear this intersection or block this particular access to a certain sensitive venue, whatever the challenged tactical challenge was, you would trot out tear gas and apply liberally.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:15:30] That sounds a lot like what happened at WTO.

Norm Stamper: [00:15:33] Uh, the biggest mistake of my career was to authorize the use of chemical agents, tear gas against my fellow Americans, who are nonviolent and indeed nonthreatening.

That's not a proud moment. I mean, I know what it's like, if you don't have enough cops, to handle something that really looks big and huge and momentous, uh, but ultimately is in the moment nonthreatening, but the filter that gets created by that culture, as, as a beat cop, as a sergeant or lieutenant, a captain ultimately a chief ... I mean, um, enough of my fellow Americans called me on it, challenged me on it and over time, uh, produced in me a profound truth. And that is, uh, I screwed up. Uh, and I screwed up badly and was delusional about my rationale for five years into my retirement. Uh, that's how powerful that culture is. So I'm quite mindful of how difficult this challenge is.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:16:43] What was the response from the other officers? I mean, if you're spending decades of your career being in, um, in opposition to the culture. How do you exist within that culture?

Norm Stamper: [00:16:56] The moment I realized what had become of me and, um, decided I don't like what I've become, I don't like the cop I am, I don't like the human being I've become, I became a hydrophobic gas bag of a police reformer, and I was a finger pointing lecturing judging critic of my fellow officers of our policies and our practices, to be sure of many police chiefs over the years, who in my judgment were leading their organizations down the wrong path.

I was offending the very people I sought to influence. That's not leadership. I mean, you can pat yourself on the back for your newly enlightened, uh, perspective on police-community relations or what have you, but unless you're influential, unless you are in fact making a change in that culture, why do you remain in that culture?

So I had another come-to-Jesus moment. I needed to learn how to get along with people I disagree with. In this case, those people were police officers.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:18:17] Recently, a veto proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to dismantle their police force. Are they doing the right thing?

Norm Stamper: [00:18:27] What we've been doing has not only not worked, it has failed colossally. I think in communities of color, particularly, uh, the institution has too many fatal flaws built into it. It needs to be, I would not use the term dismantle, it needs to be re-engineered from the ground up and it needs an authentic partnership of community and police coming together too, to actually conduct a comprehensive overhaul, not tweaking, not incremental reforms or improvements to this policy or that. I think it's vital that police and community get together to say, okay, our public safety model may work in a wealthy white enclave in this city or that, but it does not work for the majority of the people.

And it certainly does not work -- in fact, fails miserably -- those people who have historically suffered at the hands of oppressive, uh, if not lethal police practices. Symbolically, when Derek Chauvin put, uh, his knee to George Floyd's neck and held it there for almost nine minutes, we saw everything I think we need to know about police-community relations in Black communities.

If that is as disturbing to my fellow Americans, as it is to me, then we will say, look to the left to the right -- Republican, Democrat, reformer, traditionalist -- we need to get together and recognize that what we've been doing is wrong and that it has created not merely an antagonistic relationship between community and police -- people who historically, frankly, need us more than anybody else -- it has made enemies of us. And that does mean, uh, a whole new, uh, re-engineered system of public safety, and one that embraces constitutional guarantees and civil liberties.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:20:53] How do we get to that next thing? I mean, certainly what you are saying is, you know, rhetorically like very appealing, but how do you actually transform a police force without, um, without losing the protections and the good work that you're talking about, that the police bring to these communities?

Norm Stamper: [00:21:16] The challenge is huge and anybody who treats it superficial, just banned the police now, that's truly not the answer. Uh, it is a people's police. It is driven by the people not by government, not by a police chief, a sheriff, a commissioner, a superintendent. There are roles to be played by current police personnel at all levels of the organization. There's huge support for ending policing as we know it. Get the experts together, the crime fighting experts -- many of whom, by the way, reside in neighborhoods and communities across the country and are not wearing uniforms and don't have police powers -- get them all together and say, We know that we're in this for a long, long time, that we're going to create a new system of public safety that plays by the rules and those rules are deeply embedded in the secular bible of this land, the Constitution of the United States. It's there. I mean, the, the rules by which we should be policing are already written. The structure? Whole different matter. And, uh, exciting times.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:22:37] You know, we're seeing a couple of different responses from police in this moment. We're seeing some police react with violence towards protestors, with some brutality. And then we're seeing other police officers who are, who are joining protesters in kneeling, who are marching in the streets with them. Does the performance of solidarity. make reform less likely, or is it necessary for reform.

Norm Stamper: [00:23:07] Unless something constructive and physical comes from these moments of high symbolism. And that's not soft work, that will be the hardest work probably that anyone involved in it will ever have, have done.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:23:28] Well, norm, thank you so much for taking some time to talk to me. I really appreciate getting your perspective. Thanks for being on Crosscut Talks.

Norm Stamper: [00:23:36] It's my pleasure. Thank you very much, Mark.

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Mark Baumgarten: [00:24:43] Welcome back to Crosscut Talks. I'm on now with David Kroman. David is our city reporter at Crosscut and he's in the middle of covering what has been a very unusual last few days at Seattle City Hall. City council members are calling for some radical change.

So, David, you write that three city council members have asked mayor Durkan to consider resigning this week. Why exactly did they believe she should resign?

David Kroman: [00:25:08] I mean, the, the crux of their argument is that the police department, and therefore her, have not handled the protests very well. Um, they point in particular to the use of tear gas and blast balls and rubber bullets and things like that. Especially after last week, when the mayor said that they would be not using tear gas anymore and then three days later, they started using tear gas again. It's putting Seattleites, both those protesting and those who live nearby endanger.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:25:41] So you also wrote that the council members are considering defunding the police. What does that look like?

David Kroman: [00:25:47] Well, we don't know yet, the conversations are early. I think it depends on who you ask. For a few of them that looks like taking up to 50% of the Seattle Police Department's entire budget and moving it into community organizations and specifically Black-led community organizations.

I don't think that's what it means for all of them. Um, but you know, so the baseline that we know so far is an acknowledgement or an agreement between them that the Seattle Police Department and sort of policing in general is not working for, um, some segments of the population, namely, you know, Black people and people of color.

What we're going to see is a conversation around, well, if not this, then what? you know, there's a dollar amount attached to that for some people. I think no matter what it will include cuts to the police department, but how deep those cuts are and kind of where that money would go instead is still an open question.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:26:42] Hmm. So you write a little bit about the history of the police department's budget. So the budget, you write, is $407 million. Can you put that number into perspective for us? Like, how much money is that really, in terms of, of city governance?

David Kroman: [00:26:58] So the city's entire budget is about six and a half billion dollars, but they only have, well, most of that budget goes towards things that they can't touch, you know, like kind of basic services: facility, upkeep, you know, utilities. So they, they they're really left only with about a billion and a half dollars in the general fund that on any given year they can rearrange and rebudget. Of that one and a half billion dollars, $407 million is significantly more than a quarter and nearly a third of that entire budget. So it's, it's a vast ... out of all of the departments. It is by far, um, the largest in the general fund.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:27:40] And you, you said a little bit about how much of that budget some of the council members are wanting to move into other services. What are those other services and are those things that police are doing right now that they shouldn't be doing? Is that the contention here?

David Kroman: [00:27:59] You know, again, we'll, we'll see. I mean, you sort of hear a few different things. I mean, there's, there's one argument just that as sort of other basic city functions have seen cuts or kind of floundered, things like the Seattle Police Department's budget has continued to go up.

So, you know, in that sort of framing of the issue, this could be seen as basically taking money from the police department and putting it towards other things that the city's already doing. But we're also hearing a lot of talk about investing in new things. So, you know, investing in community-led organizations, Black-led organizations as a sort of substitute for some of what the police department in theory is supposed to be doing.

So the idea of being, you know, these communities may or may not have a very good relationship with police department and by sort of empowering people within those communities, a lot of the, a lot of the problems that right now are handled by the police department could, could maybe sort of be better dealt with within the community.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:28:57] And do we have any sense of what the police department thinks about these issues and these ideas?

David Kroman: [00:29:03] You know, they haven't spoken very much about it. They've been fairly radio silent. I mean, Chief Carman Best is clearly trying to walk a very tight line. It's one of the more difficult jobs in the city because she is serving at the pleasure of the mayor. So although she's not elected, she is sort of, by nature, a political appointee and her performance reflects on the mayor. And then the mayor has to go back to the voters and get reelected. She is in some ways, in some indirect way, sort of answering to the voice of the voters, but she's also in charge of 1300 police department employees. And so she has to be responding to them as well. And obviously, I don't think Chief Carmen Best, as a long-time police department employee, supports cutting 50% of the budget. She has talked a lot about acknowledging some of the issues within policing, especially around race. It'll be, it'll be very interesting to see in particular, I think, how she kind of walks that line.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:30:04] So, back to the council. Seattle isn't really known for its quick process. Have you ever seen them move to action so quickly before in, in all the years that you've been covering the council?

David Kroman: [00:30:16] Very rarely. I think probably the answer to that is no. I mean, the contrast here is, is actually pretty remarkable when you contrast it with all of the work that the city has been doing over nearly the last decade to, you know, quote, reform it's police department, that they started this some, this process in 2010, that has involved a lot  of money, um, a very sort of slow process to introduce new policies and create these new systems to basically preserve the structure of the police department, but theoretically, make it more accountable to the people that they are policing.

That has just been an incredibly slow process. And now, over the course of about a week and a half, you have Council President Lorena Gonzalez, who for years led that sort of slow, incremental reform process, basically saying, I no longer believe that that works, that I don't believe in reform anymore, that this is fundamentally broken and you can't reform something that's fundamentally broken.

So, no, I don't think I've ever seen anything have happened so quickly in city hall. And especially when you contrast it with what police reform has looked like over the last decade.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:31:24] So what are the next steps here?

David Kroman: [00:31:27] So, I mean, conveniently or inconveniently, sort of, depending on which side of this you land on the city was already going to have these budget discussions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Usually budget isn't until the fall, but because of all the shutdowns and everything, the city is looking at this at least $300 million shortfall. So they were going to have to have conversations around spending already.

Now this comes up and those, those conversations begin. So we're going to see the sort of two moments of this year and really of this last decade converge into one thing when it comes to funding and specifically funding for the police department.

Mark Baumgarten: [00:32:04] Hmm, David, thank you so much for checking in with me. Uh, I look forward to seeing where this goes.

Thanks for listening to Crosscut Talks. This week's episode was engineered by Resti Bagcal and produced by Jake Newman.

For more on the Crosscut Talks podcasts, go to crosscut.com/talks. And if you like the show, please review us on Apple podcasts. It really helps other people find us.

For the latest political, environmental and culture news from the Pacific Northwest, visit crosscut.com.

Also one last note. If you listened to last week's episode featuring Resmaa Menakem and Robin DiAngelo and like me wanted to hear more about Resmaa's work, you should really check out his recent appearance on the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett. It's a really great conversation. Just search "On Being" on your podcast provider and find the episode for June 4, 2020.

Crosscut Talks is a product of Cascade Public Media.

I'm Mark Baumgarten. We'll be back soon with another episode.


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