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Former Police Chief Has A Plan For 'How To Fix America's Police'


Of course, police officers - past and present - have been part of the conversation this week. For some, questions about the relationships between the police and the public they serve have been part of their conversations for quite some time.

Norm Stamper was chief of the Seattle Police Department for six years. Last month, he put out a book on this very issue. It's called "To Protect And Serve: How To Fix America's Police." And Norm Stamper is with us now. Thanks so much for joining us.

NORM STAMPER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You know, your book has actually been out for a couple of weeks now, but there's a very prescient inscription. It is inscribed to the survivors, those who have lost loved ones through wrongful acts of law enforcement and those who have lost police officers to on-the-job violence - kind of remarkable after that week that we've had.

STAMPER: Well, I - when I was inspired to write that dedication, I had in mind nothing like what's happened this week.

MARTIN: What is going through your mind after the events of this week?

STAMPER: It's mostly an emotion as opposed to a thought, and it's pain. This hurts so much. The effort to achieve an authentic partnership between community and police and particularly in those communities that historically have had the toughest time with law enforcement is always on my mind. It is critical, it seems to me, that we find a way to find common ground. And we're not very close to that moment at this point.

MARTIN: Why did you put both of those in the inscription? Some people just don't think those are morally equivalent, if you want to call it that.

STAMPER: Well, for me, the moral equivalence boils down to the very basic principle of the sanctity of human life. And whether you're wearing a blue or a tan or a khaki uniform or you're an 18 or 19-year-old young African-American man, your life is valuable

STAMPER: and very precious. And it seems to me that one possible silver lining to the horrific week that we've had is that police officers will come to appreciate what families have lost at the hands of police officers. And the more we can develop a mutual appreciation for the value of human life, for the aspirations that all human beings have that we can begin to see what's in it for all of us.

MARTIN: Let's talk about your book. The subtitle, as I said, is "How To Fix America's Police." So I have to assume that you believe that America's policing system is in fact broken. What's broken?

STAMPER: The system itself. Policing is broken. Tragically, it has been broken from the very beginning of the institution. It has evolved as a paramilitary, bureaucratic, organizational arrangement that distances police officers from the communities they've been sworn to protect and serve.

MARTIN: What underlies your view about the fact that the system itself is what's broken?

STAMPER: Well, it starts from the very basic premise that the police in America belong to the people, not the other way around. And if we're ever to achieve that kind of partnership, we've got to find a way to build trust. And that's not going to happen as a result of some cosmetic public relations approach.

It requires very, very hard work. It is human beings all playing different roles, recognizing their common ground and working to establish the quality and the nature of the relationship that's necessary to reach that common ground. And, for me, that means we need to adopt true community policing. And I don't believe that that exists to the extent that it should.

MARTIN: That suggests that this is an issue of a few people as opposed to a systemic problem. So what's the system problem that leads to these poor outcomes?

STAMPER: The system problem, I think, is that police officers in the United States believe that they must maintain control from beginning to end of every single contact they make. They're taught that by their culture. In some cases, they're taught that in the police academy.

When you create this one-up, one-down situation in which the police officer says, I'm the cop. You're not. This is what you're going to do and why you're going to do it, how you're going to do it, if you're going to do it. That kind of control leads to an abuse of power. We've also militarized American law enforcement beyond all measure. The drug work has contributed dramatically to the militarization of policing. If you're engaged in a war, you have to have an enemy. You also have to have propaganda. You don't fight wars without enemies and propaganda.

And so we've taught our cops that they're on the front lines of an occupational force and their job is to maintain control of every situation. And I would argue that they lose control when they embrace that attitude and take it into every contact. Look, there are dangerous situations in police work, and police officers need to be ready to use force. The law entitles them to use only that amount of force necessary to overcome whatever resistance they're facing. And if, in fact, you're confronting, as the police officers in Dallas did, an armed and very, very dangerous man, they are authorized to use lethal force.

Most people, I think, get that. It's when you get into these discretionary marginal contacts that we find police officers abusing their power. And it is true that if one officer out of the million police officers we have in this country shoot somebody without authorization, without legal standing, and we can say that's the exception. Let's go ahead and deal with that individual. But when we have shooting after shooting after shooting that most people would define as at least questionable, it's time to look, not just at a few bad apples, but the barrel. And I'm convinced that it is the barrel that is rotted.

MARTIN: You say in the book (reading) a scared cop is a dangerous cop.

What do you mean by that?

STAMPER: A scared cop is an impulsive cop. A scared cop is somebody who literally does not see straight. Perception is affected by fear, sometimes profoundly. Every officer who's been involved in a shooting - and I have been - will tell you that tunnel vision is absolutely real. Everything else disappears from view but the threat to the safety of the officer or to the safety of any other person.

And so it's vital, I think, that we all understand that when a police officer is frightened, is inclined toward impulsive behavior or rash behavior, we need to be asking ourselves, did we anticipate this? Isn't it in the nature of police where the cops are going to find themselves 3 o'clock in the morning down a darkened alley confronting somebody? How do we train them, educate them such that they know what their bodies are going to do?

They have an understanding of elevated blood pressure, of rapid heart rate. They know what their bodies are telling them, namely I'm afraid. And then they have a way not to override it, but to channel it. And the cops I hear screaming at people, pulling their guns, firing those lethal weapons are out of control, and that comes from fear.

MARTIN: Do you think anything good is going to come of this week?

STAMPER: You know, I do. Many officers who are hurting and grieving will go through various stages, and they'll come out the other side not having forgotten this - it's an unforgettable week - but returning to their work and attempting to get the job done as they know how to do it. And some officers will open themselves up.

They have been supported enormously in Dallas and across the country. Citizens saw that and maybe, just maybe, some would say, look, you know, me - I think maybe I need to take a look at my attitude about what we expect of our police officers and what kind of support we're giving them to be able to get this job done competently and compassionately.

So it could very well be that critics will begin to sort of lean into whatever discomfort they may have about doing this and work with their cops. And then police officers experiencing the very raw emotions associated with human vulnerability, associated with human grief will become more human themselves. And they will say, look, this insanity has got to stop.

MARTIN: That's Norm Stamper. He began his law enforcement career as a beat cop in San Diego in 1966, and he eventually became chief of the Seattle Police Department. He's the author of the new book "To Protect And Serve: How To Fix America's Police," and he was kind enough to join us from member station KPLU in Seattle. Chief Stamper, thank you so much for speaking with us.

STAMPER: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.