Norm Stamper, a former cop who served for more than three decades and rounded out his law-enforcement career as Seattle’s chief of police, is one of America’s most vital authorities on police brutality and reform. In summer 2016 he published his second book, To Protect and Serve, and contributed an essay entitled “Fix the Police” to our July/August Freedom Issue. With a markedly different leader in the White House, we reconnected with Stamper in the hope of gleaning some fresh insights. It’s our privilege to present this conversation—on the high-profile police shootings of the last few years, the travesty of the drug war, the importance of community involvement and much more—between Stamper and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith.

In your book, you say some pretty tough things about policing in America—things we’re not used to hearing from a police chief. You say, for example, that American policing is a breeding ground for racism, corruption, sexual predation and so forth. Why do you make these harsh comments?
I was in the business for 34 years. That’s enough time to have witnessed firsthand some outstanding police work but also to have seen multiple, continuing instances of every curse you mentioned. Plus one you didn’t; namely, cops covering up for one another. Hell, during my rookie year, 1966, I gleefully abused the citizens I’d been hired to serve. I had set out to be a different kind of cop, you see, respectful, responsible. But the power of the badge went straight to my head. Finally, a prosecutor in reviewing an arrest I’d made had the nerve to ask me if the United States Constitution meant anything to me. It stopped me cold and helped get me back on the right track, for which I’ll always be grateful.

I’ve also spent my entire adult life studying policing, partly to understand how its history has corresponded to the larger context of American history. I learned that my institution has been dysfunctional from the very beginning, from the time of slave patrols in the South and corrupt watchmen-style policing in the Northeast. Plus, I’m just plain curious. It’s my nature to question why, for instance, the structure of police work all but guarantees patterns of inept or dishonorable behavior.

The incidents we’re experiencing today are not at all new; we’ve seen them in waves over the years. Everything from rudeness to indefensible shootings—all part of a systemic problem. So I’m not attacking my former colleagues, though certainly individuals must be held accountable for any and all misconduct. It’s the institution that needs our attention.

**Norm Stamper.** Mark Bennington

Norm Stamper. Mark Bennington

In human terms, why are so many cops killing so many unarmed blacks and then getting off?
Three reasons, I think. First, too many white cops are afraid of black men: the bigger, the darker the black man, the greater the fear. So race is obviously a factor, as it is throughout society. Ask yourself: If 18-year-old Michael Brown had been white, if Tamir Rice had not been a 12-year-old black kid, would they be alive today? Yes, I believe. And the same could be said for so many others, including Amadou Diallo in New York, Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Those last two shootings, by the way? Cold-blooded murders at the hands of police. How does that help build trust in law enforcement? We have to ask ourselves, non-rhetorically: What do we do with a police officer for whom black lives don’t matter?

Second, the increased militarization of American policing has made “enemy combatants” of millions of young black men. You don’t fight a war without an enemy and, as with all wars, the tendency is to dehumanize or objectify your adversary. I think it’s also true that respect for the sanctity of human life, particularly in black communities, has always been too low a priority for our police. I got an anguished call last year from a retired police homicide detective. “How come we’re killing all these black people, Norm?” It’s telling that he used the present tense and the plural pronoun. He’s still a cop at heart, and it pains him, as it does many other old-timers, that today’s officers seem so quick to pull the trigger, to take the life of a fellow human being.

Which brings me to the third reason we’re seeing so many controversial or just plain bad police shootings: tactics. Most cops have been taught, if not in the classroom then in the locker room or in the front seat of a police car, never to back down from a fight—and, for God’s sake, never to lose one. Their mentality is to take action first and ask questions later instead of approaching calmly and competently, sizing up a given situation. Their fear distorts everything. Perception is affected, judgment is affected. Those four NYPD cops fired a total of 41 shots at Diallo from very close range, only 19 rounds finding their misbegotten target. Watch the growing library of police-shooting videos: cops, guns drawn, screaming at the top of their lungs or barking orders—behaviors known to escalate rather than defuse tensions. These officers put everyone, including themselves, in unnecessary danger. Darren Wilson, taunted by Michael Brown, backs up his Chevy Tahoe at a reckless rate of speed and brings it to a sudden stop just inches from the teenager—then complains to the grand jury that Brown had “trapped” him inside his vehicle, thereby setting up the deadly encounter. Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland cop who a couple of years earlier had been fired by the Independence, Ohio police department for falling apart on the pistol range, and his partner pulled to within feet of Tamir Rice, the subject of a “man with a gun” call. In both cases, in virtually all such cases, the shootings could have been prevented. How? Better tactics: park a distance away, wait for backup, take cover, buy time, approach slowly, speak conversationally, if not soothingly.

We have to ask ourselves, non-rhetorically: What do we do with a police officer for whom black lives don’t matter?

A police officer’s first duty is to save lives, not take them. Recently I heard a very smart cop say, “Every shift I go out there thinking, ‘No one dies today, no one dies on my watch.’” Including him. How many young people, poor people, people of color, those under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, those with mental illness would be alive today if every cop in the country embraced this life-affirming philosophy?

Why are cops getting off, not being held accountable for unjustified shootings? Two reasons. Some prosecutors are simply too timid politically, too cozy with the local PD or its union. And some states have lousy laws on the books. In Washington State, for example, a prosecutor has to prove “malice,” a standard far too high to meet. The state legislature has been given plenty of opportunities to fix this but has failed. Now, a citizen initiative seeks to mandate both de-escalation policies and training for all police officers as well as an end to the malice standard. I think it’ll win at the polls, showing once again that when it comes to social justice the people are often ahead of their politicians.

But it is a dangerous job, right?
Sure…though it’s not as hazardous as most think. In fact, policing doesn’t even crack the top 10 of society’s most dangerous occupations. According to the FBI, while police officers interact with citizens some 63 million times a year, they are assaulted in roughly 0.09 percent of all interactions, injured in 0.02 percent and killed in 0.00008 percent. Looking for excitement and danger on the job? Become a logger, a crabber in the Bering Sea, a farmer, a miner…

Which is not to say that police work doesn’t have its risks. Sell that preposterous notion to heartbroken loved ones and co-workers of the five on-duty cops ambushed in Dallas in 2016. Or the survivors of officers slain in Baton Rouge, New York City, Las Vegas, Des Moines, Hattiesburg and way too many other U.S. cities. Police officers must be alert, diligent, able and willing to protect themselves as well as others. This means maintaining overall strength and agility, staying up to date on sound tactics, and paying attention to one’s own physical and emotional health. In light of the numbers of guns they encounter, cops must also know when to draw their firearms, when to pull the trigger.

No one should have to live in fear. In fact, freedom from crime and fear of crime—especially violent, predatory offenses—should be a right of all Americans. When police and citizens learn to team up, forge increased levels of mutual trust and respect, we’ll see a sizable reduction in crime. And fewer attacks on law enforcement personnel.

Teaming up—what does that entail?
Recognition that the police in America belong to the people, not the other way around. Police officers are taught, generationally, a most un-team-like attitude: We’re the cops, and you’re not. So building an authentic partnership—not some cosmetic, PR version—is both essential and daunting. It begins with a conscious decision and a well thought-out, articulated agreement of civic leaders, community activists and the local PD, both leaders and rank-and-file. The pact makes clear: In this town, we work collaboratively to achieve safe streets and to honor human rights and civil liberties. We permit no racism, sexism, homophobia or any other brand of bigotry. Excessive force, corruption and disrespectful behavior are not welcome here. This shift in thinking, structure and leadership entails major organizational change, including the demilitarization of the institution.

When police and citizens learn to forge increased levels of mutual trust and respect, we’ll see a sizable reduction in crime.

What do you mean by demilitarization?
Policing has been in love with “militarized” policies and propaganda for a long, long time. Military argot and jargon; military vehicles, weaponry and tactics have helped maintain the barrier between cops and citizens. We have to change this mindset. How? By establishing official citizen involvement in all aspects of policing: hiring, training, promotions, chief appointments, policymaking, program development, crisis management and, of course, independent oversight of use-of-force and alleged police misconduct investigations. That said, it’s essential that citizens understand there are times and places and situations that demand military-like equipment, weapons and tactics; think school shootings, terrorist and other rampage violence, active-shooter and barricaded-suspects incidents and the like. The sooner we see direct citizen participation in everyday police activities—in all but exigent, dangerous situations—the sooner we’ll see a more appreciative, supportive community assessment of the legitimate use of police force.

So you’re suggesting that if citizens were more involved it would actually change the outlook and the behavior of police on the beat?
It’s what the science tells us. If you and I labor together in pursuit of common goals, we begin to see the world in similar terms, regardless of our differing roles, and to work in concert to achieve those goals. The researcher Robert Cialdini writes of the rule of reciprocity: You respect me, I respect you. You give me information, I give you information. You trust me, level with me, I reciprocate. There may be an imbalance, certainly at the beginning, but over time, as “civilians” become an everyday presence at police headquarters and in the precinct stations, cops and citizens create a much more effective, cohesive team. I’ve seen this phenomenon at work in San Diego and in Seattle. It’s hard, often raggedy, frustrating work. Replacing mistrust with trust takes time, but the effort is well worth it.

Obviously there are many things that need to be done, but if there were one or two other things…
Well, I proffer a “manifesto” of eight action steps in my book, but three stand out for me. We’ve already talked about the first: a citizen-driven definition of “community policing”—which, I might add, draws inspiration from your momentous Who Stole the American Dream. I thank you for that, sir.

Second, end the damn drug war. We’ve been at it for 45 years and what do we have to show for it? The incarceration, marginalization, and demonization of tens of millions of our fellow Americans, disproportionately young, poor, black, and Hispanic; the fracturing of countless families; open-air drug markets that contribute to unsafe, unhealthy conditions and deflate property values; the expenditure of over $1.5 trillion in taxpayer money; and, if you’ve got an eye on the ledger, the real kicker: Drugs are more readily available, and accessible to our children, at lower prices, and higher levels of potency than when Richard Nixon famously declared war against his own people in 1971.

When I was a beat cop we’d make the occasional drug bust, but it wasn’t part of a war. Today, on an annual basis, we witness upwards of 60,000 pre-dawn drug raids: militarily uniformed and weaponized “foot soldiers” pulling up to a “target’s” private residence in an MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected), shattering the door off its hinges, and tossing flashbang grenades—all for a roach or half a baggie of marijuana, in some cases. Innocent people, including cops, killed and injured, family pets shot to death, children maimed and terrorized…

The American people know full well that prohibition, the organizing principle of U.S. drug policy, is a colossal failure (as with alcohol prohibition a century ago). Yet, predictably, the new administration is poised to double down on the drug war, rather than working with Congress to replace prohibition with a smart, rigorously enforced regulatory system, and investing in prevention, education, treatment. We must, once and for all, make responsible adult drug use a public health issue—and a civil liberty—and drug abuse a medical problem, deserving of treatment, not jail. Drive impaired, furnish to a kid? We’ll still have a cell for you.

Okay. You said there were three. What’s the other one?
Set national standards for police exercise of procedural justice. The areas that piss people off the most, that cause the greatest strain to the community-police relationship—and so often needlessly endanger citizens and police officers alike? Stop-and-frisk, criminal arrests, rules of evidence and use of force. The Constitution—the secular bible of the land—mandates, well, lawful law enforcement. However, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction practices vary widely and are often unlawful. Take Ferguson,for example. We saw law enforcement, and the rest of the city government, engaged in institutionalized racism and policing for profit. Excessive force, quota systems, bigotry, corruption abound in many agencies, and accountability measures are often insufficient or absent.

Since the Constitution is binding on every federal, state and local agency and officer, we must develop a set of uniform procedural justice standards. Any agency that routinely dishonors these standards would lose its certification—in other words, be forced out of business, its duties taken over by a certified agency. Any officer who can’t or won’t play by the rules, including honest, respectful and dignified behavior would lose his or her license to practice law enforcement—anywhere in the country.

At the time I was writing To Protect and Serve, Obama was president, Holder was on his way out, and Lynch was moving into the AG’s office—three smart, thoughtful leaders who cared about criminal justice and police reform. While I wouldn’t presume to suggest they’d have supported my agenda, they were certainly sympathetic to the principles that underlie it. The present administration, on the other hand, is headed in a starkly different direction. The president, a serial sex offender and terrible role model for Americans of all ages, openly demeans entire races and ethnic groups, admires “some” neo-Nazis and white supremacists and advocates police brutality. More than a few elected sheriffs are beginning to sound eerily like Donald J. Trump, a truly frightening specter.

Where can the initiative happen here? Can cities do it on their own? Can states do it on their own? Do we have to wait for the president or Congress to pass a law?
No, we do not have to wait, nor should we. I look to the civil rights movement as a model. While its original work ended far from the finish line—witness the vile torch march, the violence in Charlottesville, the reversal of voting rights gains and the countless everyday acts of unlawful discrimination in today’s society—the movement did change minds and hearts, laws and institutions. Moreover, it fostered the kind of social agitation, education, legal progress and direct action necessary to move a society in the direction of justice and equality.

So I’m an advocate of a massive grassroots police reform effort to get the attention of elected and appointed officials at all levels of government—from the White House to the state house, from county commissions to city councils to police departments and sheriffs offices. I picture activists like Black Lives Matter, other community based organizations and even sympathetic police leaders and rank-and-file cops—check out Law Enforcement Action Partnership—uniting to bring about necessary reforms. Such partnerships can demonstrate how this kind of citizen-police cooperation can be achieved. It won’t happen by Tuesday, of course. But if we don’t take action now, we’ll be back to wringing our hands and gnashing our teeth over the next maddening, heartbreaking incident of police violence or other misconduct.

What one thing would you say to a police officer to help him or her make it home at the end of shift, and to get the job done properly?
I’d probably ask, “Would it kill you to smile?” Seriously, a skilled, self-confident, physically and emotionally fit, down-to-earth police officer with a sense of humor, a belief in humanity, maybe even a little compassion—isn’t that the kind of cop who, if you had to call 911, you’d want showing up at your door?