What kind of intel are cops keeping from us? What does the public need to know about the officers sworn to protect us? Peek over the thin blue line in our new feature that reveals the inside secrets of fascinating and dangerous professions. In this installment we’re going behind the badge to uncover what the police won’t tell you. We spoke to 34-year veteran police officer and former Seattle Chief of Police Norm Stamper for 10 pieces of police officer insider knowledge.
Deceit is a common cop tactic. And in situations like grilling suspects and undercover work, it’s all on the up-and-up in the eyes of the law. Stamper explains, “Lying is legal in police work. In the United States of America, the Constitution is explicit about the Fourth Amendment, the First Amendment, about other Bill of Rights provisions, but it's silent on cops lying.” In many cases, such as in an interrogation situation, the police are fully authorized to use trickery and deceit to get a suspect to incriminate himself. “Say we bring in two suspects,” says Stamper, “we’ll separate them and bend the truth to try to get them to admit to the crime. ‘Oh sorry, man, I know you're telling me you didn't do this, but your buddy Fred told me what you did. In fact, he witnessed your crime, so stop lying. Come clean now and we can help you. If you confess immediately, everyone, us, the courts, will go easier on you.’”
When their lives are on the line, police officers experience fear. To be afraid in dangerous situations is only human nature; however, Stamper believes that the machismo of police culture turns these fears toxic. “Cops get scared. They're much more afraid than many of them let on. Fear is a normal reaction in dangerous circumstances, but in the culture of law enforcement it's a socially unacceptable emotion. So what you get is police officers who are acting impulsively because they’re failing to manage their own emotions. Often, police officers in tense situations are overreacting and coming across as very authoritarian, but, in fact, I think they're scared.”
An example Stamper uses of the corrosive effects of unmanaged fear on the police is the infamous 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, where four New York police officers shot the innocent, unarmed Diallo 41 times.
“Fear affects perception and causes misperception,” says Stamper. “Diallo spoke little English and was told by his friends, ‘If the police stop you, show them your ID,’ and of course that's what he was attempting to do when the officers approached him. He pulled his black leather wallet out and attempted to present it, and the officers saw the wallet as a firearm and reacted with brute force.”
The adage “Power corrupts” certainly applies to some cops. Stamper explains that the authority and power police process can go to the bad apples’ heads. Some police officers embody the authority of the job to the point where being a cop becomes their whole identity. “If I’m a police officer and you question me, you challenge me, even if you do it with innocence and the best of intentions, and if I think that I'm being verbally attacked or that my authority is being questioned, and I lack the personal maturity and the self-discipline necessary to behave myself, then I'm not going to behave well,” he says. “I’m going to lash out because you've attacked not only the uniform and my position, you've not only defied the orders of a police officer—you have undermined my very identity. I am wrapped in that uniform and that badge, that gun and the conspicuously marked automobile. I am the authority.”
Stamper points out that power-tripping cops are not only terrible for the public good, they’re self-destructive, too. They can't turn off their authoritative persona in their personal lives. As Stamper explains, “It gets embedded in their central nervous system, so these officers tend to be cynical and suspicious with their own families.” An unhappy home life and high divorce rates are common consequences.
According to Stamper, the public has no idea that a significant number of caring police officers help people over and above what their job requires. “Sometimes we hear about such acts of kindness. We've seen examples in the media, like when that New York cop was photographed buying the homeless man new boots. That stuff does go on and it's unheralded.”
The public's not aware of the modest officers who engage in compassionate social service and charity for no praise or reward. Stamper's witnessed police going even further than charity: “I’ve come to know a number of officers who, when they have seen a victim of child neglect, would return again and again with clothing and goods. I've seen cops go as far as to apply for and receive foster parent status so they can help a child who has been neglected or abused.”
Since retiring as Seattle's police chief, Norm Stamper’s become a well-known advocate for ending the war on drugs. No one will be surprised to hear there’s a body of activists, academics and journalists who agree with Stamper’s drug stance. What he thinks might shock the public is how many active cops share his beliefs on legalizing and regulating drugs. “The drug war's a travesty: $1.3 trillion squandered,” he says. “Tens of millions of Americans arrested for nonviolent drug offenses. Families fractured. And what do we have to show for it? Drugs readily available at lower prices with higher levels of potency. There are a growing number of police officers who have not, say, joined LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, of which I'm a proud member), but a lot of cops will whisper their support.”
Many cops secretly hold such beliefs, because it's the police who witness firsthand the destructiveness and futility of the war on drugs. The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, and the legalization progress in other states, is forcing the drug war into the public consciousness. “Of course marijuana should be legalized,” says Stamper. “It should be regulated and taxed, thereby allowing control of it at a national level.” He adds, “This state-by-state campaign effectively underway now has a lot of police officers signing on psychologically. And more and more of them are starting to speak out.”
Stamper sees police work as excessively male-dominated, both in culture and in numbers, and this gender imbalance is a problem. The secret is women make great cops. “It’s a shame there are not more female cops since so many women are effective at problem solving and de-escalation tactics. This is the kind of modeling, the kind of leadership behavior police officers, and particularly newer ones, really need to see.” Stamper admits he’s generalizing to a degree; there are less-than-admirable female cops out there too: “For every three trigger-happy, swaggering John Wayne male cops, you have at least one Annie Oakley female officer.”
Gender equality in policing has improved since Stamper started his career in 1966. In the ’60s women were barred from police patrol and passed over for leadership roles. But today many police agencies are still far from processing an equal number of women and men in uniform.
Militarization of police organizations around the country is a significant and harmful change to police work. This shift to a military mentality is going largely unnoticed by the public at large. “Due to the drug war and the post-9/11 mindset, we’re seeing the federal government doling out military equipment to local police departments. And if your agency gets that equipment, the automatic weapons, the armored vehicles, you got to use it. If you don’t, your organization is judged to lack proficiency.” Because the average cop isn’t fighting armed militias or raiding terrorist cells, what are the police using these military armaments for? “More likely they’ll be used raiding a single-family dwelling because the cops think someone’s smoking pot in there—we have SWAT teams decked out in military-like garb breaking down doors and terrorizing families and killing pets.”
The problem goes deeper than just the army-grade gear being misused by cops. Stamper passionately maintains that the military mindset has no place in police work. When cops receive army-like training at the police academy, wield military weapons and adopt a soldier's perspective, it destroys trust between the police and their communities. “We see police acting like an invading occupational force in their own country,” he says. “That doesn't do a whole lot for crime-fighting, for positive relationships between the police and the citizens they serve.”
Stamper is troubled by another “open secret”: enforcement of laws varies from locale to locale around America. “There are almost 20,000 law enforcement agencies in this country, divided between federal, state, county and local levels. The differences from one jurisdiction to the next mean very uneven police work. The constancy promised by our Constitution is that no matter where you are in the confines of the United States, you'll be treated to the same rights and privileges all Americans enjoy. But that's just not true from one town to the next. In these thousands of agencies you have very different selection processes, entry training, ongoing training supervision and disciplinary systems.”
He views this patchwork system as a factor in police corruption. “Sarah Stillman wrote an article for the New Yorker about asset seizure in small towns, police stopping motorists for any conceivable reason and seizing property and then sending the driver on their way without an arrest.” Any money or property seized goes into the department's coffers, or in the cases of crooked cops, into their own personal bank accounts.
The public doesn’t know that the majority of cops they see on the street, the police on patrol keeping the peace and responding to any immediate dangers, are usually the most inexperienced. From Stamper’s perspective, that’s a huge problem. “In police work we put the youngest, the newest, the least experienced and, by definition, the most immature and the most impulsive officers in patrol,” he says, adding, “which is where the work of a police department is at its most delicate and demanding and dangerous. In many cities, those officers on patrol are the most conspicuous representatives of the agency. They are the most likely to die on the job, to get complaints, to screw up and compromise themselves and the law and to shape the reputation of the entire organization.”
He blames an institutional bias against the value of patrol work for the problem. Promotions, better pay, higher rank and more respect come with positions such as detective; officers are incentivized to transfer away from patrol jobs. Talent and experience are drained from patrol, as is seasoned leadership. “This lack of experienced police where we need them leads to serious issues around how we shape, mold and help these young new patrol cops. How we teach them to embrace their discretion in healthy ways and develop the skills necessary to be really effective at the toughest job in the department.”
A police culture of alcohol abuse and drinking on the job is dirty laundry that few citizens can get behind. Stamper says it was a widespread and pervasive issue. “It used to be very common for a number of police officers to attend ‘choir practice,’ a term the writer Joseph Wambaugh gave to cops gathering at the station and consuming massive quantities of alcohol taken from young people over the course of their shift.” Officers would show up for a party in the station or in the parking lot, fueled by six-packs and whiskey seized from teens, and drink themselves blackout drunk. Stamper says it wasn’t uncommon for inebriated officers to drive themselves home, plus there were the dangers presented by mixing drink with firearms. “They are also packing heat, and it's just a matter of time before the drunkest of the drunk pull those guns out and start shooting seagulls...or shooting themselves. I know of one officer who shot himself in the thigh.”
As disturbing as these drinking stories sound, Stamper’s noticed a positive shift away from the boozing lifestyle. “Thankfully, police culture is undergoing a very significant change and is moving away from excessive drinking. There are more and more officers heading to the gym rather than the tavern after work. I'm not saying that this drunken behavior no longer exists, it does, but what we have seen is a major shift to a healthier lifestyle, of cops deliberately rejecting the choir practice mentality.”
Norm Stamper is a 34-year veteran police officer who retired as Seattle's Chief of Police in 2000. He is currently a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a 5,000-member organization with 75,000 public supporters, representing cops, judges, prosecutors, FBI/DEA agents, prison wardens and public supporters who now want to legalize and regulate all drugs after witnessing the horrors and injustices of the "war on drugs."
In addition to serving as Seattle's top cop, Stamper led San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson's Crime Control Commission. He is the author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing.