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Norm Stamper
Yes! Magazine / Op-Ed
Published: Friday 18 November 2011
“Much of the problem is rooted in a rigid command-and-control hierarchy based on the military model.”

Lessons of a Police Chief: Militarization is a Mistake

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They came from all over, tens of thousands of demonstrators from around the world, protesting the economic and moral pitfalls of globalization. Our mission as members of the Seattle Police Department? To safeguard people and property—in that order. Things went well the first day. We were praised for our friendliness and restraint—though some politicians were apoplectic at our refusal to make mass arrests for the actions of a few.

Then came day two. Early in the morning, large contingents of demonstrators began to converge at a key downtown intersection. They sat down and refused to budge. Their numbers grew. A labor march would soon add additional thousands to the mix.

“We have to clear the intersection,” said the field commander. “We have to clear the intersection,” the operations commander agreed, from his bunker in the Public Safety Building. Standing alone on the edge of the crowd, I, the chief of police, said to myself, “We have to clear the intersection.”


Because of all the what-ifs. What if a fire breaks out in the Sheraton across the street? What if a woman goes into labor on the seventeenth floor of the hotel? What if a heart patient goes into cardiac arrest in the high-rise on the corner? What if there’s a stabbing, a shooting, a serious-injury traffic accident? How would an aid car, fire engine or police cruiser get through that sea of people? The cop in me supported the decision to clear the intersection. But the chief in me should have vetoed it. And he certainly should have forbidden the indiscriminate use of tear gas to accomplish it, no matter how many warnings we barked through the bullhorn.

My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose. Rocks, bottles and newspaper racks went flying. Windows were smashed, stores were looted, fires lighted; and more gas filled the streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging the conflict. The “Battle in Seattle,” as the WTO protests and their aftermath came to be known, was a huge setback—for the protesters, my cops, the community.

More than a decade later, the police response to the Occupy movement, most disturbingly visible in Oakland—where scenes resembled a war zone and where a marine remains in serious condition from a police projectile—brings into sharp relief the acute and chronic problems of American law enforcement. Seattle might have served as a cautionary tale, but instead, US police forces have become increasingly militarized, and it’s showing in cities everywhere: the NYPD “white shirt” coating innocent people with pepper spray, the arrests of two student journalists at Occupy Atlanta, the declaration of public property as off-limits and the arrests of protesters for “trespassing.”

The paramilitary bureaucracy and the culture it engenders—a black-and-white world in which police unions serve above all to protect the brotherhood—is worse today than it was in the 1990s. Such agencies inevitably view protesters as the enemy. And young people, poor people and people of color will forever experience the institution as an abusive, militaristic force—not just during demonstrations but every day, in neighborhoods across the country.

Much of the problem is rooted in a rigid command-and-control hierarchy based on the military model. American police forces are beholden to archaic internal systems of authority whose rules emphasize bureaucratic regulations over conduct on the streets. An officer’s hair length, the shine on his shoes and the condition of his car are more important than whether he treats a burglary victim or a sex worker with dignity and respect. In the interest of “discipline,” too many police bosses treat their frontline officers as dependent children, which helps explain why many of them behave more like juvenile delinquents than mature, competent professionals. It also helps to explain why persistent, patterned misconduct, including racism, sexism, homophobia, brutality, perjury and corruption, do not go away, no matter how many blue-ribbon panels are commissioned or how much training is provided.

External political factors are also to blame, such as the continuing madness of the drug war. Last year police arrested 1.6 million nonviolent drug offenders. In New York City alone almost 50,000 people (overwhelmingly black, Latino or poor) were busted for possession of small amounts of marijuana—some of it, we have recently learned, planted by narcotics officers. The counterproductive response to 9/11, in which the federal government began providing military equipment and training even to some of the smallest rural departments, has fueled the militarization of police forces. Everyday policing is characterized by a SWAT mentality, every other 911 call a military mission. What emerges is a picture of a vital public-safety institution perpetually at war with its own people. The tragic results—raids gone bad, wrong houses hit, innocent people and family pets shot and killed by police—are chronicled in Radley Balko’s excellent 2006 report Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.

It is ironic that those police officers who are busting up the Occupy protesters are themselves victims of the same social ills the demonstrators are combating: corporate greed; the slackening of essential regulatory systems; and the abject failure of all three branches of government to safeguard civil liberties and to protect, if not provide, basic human needs like health, housing, education and more. With cities and states struggling to balance the budget while continuing to deliver public safety, many cops are finding themselves out of work. And, as many Occupy protesters have pointed out, even as police officers help to safeguard the power and profits of the 1 percent, police officers are part of the 99 percent.

here will always be situations—an armed and barricaded suspect, a man with a knife to his wife’s throat, a school-shooting rampage—that require disciplined, military-like operations. But most of what police are called upon to do, day in and day out, requires patience, diplomacy and interpersonal skills. I’m convinced it is possible to create a smart organizational alternative to the paramilitary bureaucracy that is American policing. But that will not happen unless, even as we cull “bad apples” from our police forces, we recognize that the barrel itself is rotten.

Assuming the necessity of radical structural reform, how do we proceed? By building a progressive police organization, created by rank-and-file officers, “civilian” employees and community representatives. Such an effort would include plans to flatten hierarchies; create a true citizen review board with investigative and subpoena powers; and ensure community participation in all operations, including policy-making, program development, priority-setting and crisis management. In short, cops and citizens would forge an authentic partnership in policing the city. And because partners do not act unilaterally, they would be compelled to keep each other informed, and to build trust and mutual respect—qualities sorely missing from the current equation.

It will not be easy. In fact, failure is assured if we lack the political will to win the support of police chiefs and their elected bosses, if we are unable to influence or neutralize police unions, if we don’t have the courage to move beyond the endless justifications for maintaining the status quo. But imagine the community and its cops united in the effort to responsibly “police” the Occupy movement. Picture thousands of people gathered to press grievances against their government and the corporations, under the watchful, sympathetic protection of their partners in blue.

Norm Stamper was Seattle’s police chief from 1994 to 2000, and a police officer for 34 years. He is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and the author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing. He wrote this article for the Nation.

This is what a hero looks

This is what a hero looks like.

If citizens are expected to

If citizens are expected to withstand insults without being allowed to grab clubs or tossing hot sauce in someone's face, police, who KNOW they are going out into the public and that this is part of their job, certainly should be held to an even higher standard, with their training and access to weapons.

Richard Care to give an

Care to give an Example of this Officer Friendly Model that might be found in a large Metropolitan Area. Some ideas just don't translate well up from communities on the village level to Cities

Peaceful civil unarmed

Peaceful civil unarmed demonstrations are attacked by armed police forces using military tactics, weapons and conduct. The majority of police forces assualting the demonstrators have proven themselves to be Enemies of the Peoples of the United States of America. Provide them no comfort nor conciliation. Blood has been drawn. We ARE in a state of WAR!

Me thinks you are thinking to

Me thinks you are thinking to much of yourself and Movement

Thanks for this report.

Thanks for this report. Cited at PolicyMic —

Sir I'm of the Opinion you

Sir I'm of the Opinion you where in the Wrong Profession.

Mr. Stamper, Thank you for

Mr. Stamper,

Thank you for your thoughtful, humane, and pragmatic commentary. I am a military veteran and a criminal prosecutor. I have many colleagues and friends in law enforcement. No American wishes to live in a police state, anymore than they would want to live in a state of anarchy. The police are our brothers and sisters. Their reason for being is to protect and serve the general populace, not maintain "order" and the status quo at all costs.

He would send Aunt Bee out

He would send Aunt Bee out with crullers and milk.

Norm is an example of what

Norm is an example of what America is all about. He has courageously admitted his own mistakes and has become a better man because of it. His honest and ethical writings should be mandatory read at all police academies throughout the country.

Militarization of police is

Militarization of police is not just a local problem. It is encouraged by the federal government by supplying huge amounts of military equipment to police departments all around the country. That's where those helicopters and all that SWAT team equipment come from.

It's naive to think anyone at

It's naive to think anyone at the top wants or will permit anything other than brutal forces to keep their criminal corporations in control. You're dealing with people who leave 18,000 children to die of starvation every day. That's a dead child with every breath drawn. If you think the people who allow this to happen have any concern whatsoever about smashing the skull of a person in a wheelchair who blocks a CEO from getting to a meeting, you should take up permanent residence in Disneyland.

Traveler123 You have trotted

You have trotted out that 18,000 children die of Starvation every day. Not saying its inaccurate although I would like to ask for an explanation .
Is it 18,000 Word Wide?
What are the age spread of the Children?
This is just over 6.5 Million poor Souls per year
Are there other factors such as diarrhea contributing to their untimely demise
Not saying this is inaccurate its just my nature to seek clarification

Norm Stamper, If you read

Norm Stamper, If you read this, talk to me about the experience of being a sane, responsible adult protestor at WTO. It was heartbreaking to see Seattle's police officers so clueless about how to behave. Putting them in those Godawful Martian assault costumes was the first huge mistake. At OWS, I had great cordial conversations with officers whose faces were open and available--no masks. Not that NYPD isn't messing up bigtime, but when they leave off the overkill costuming, it really does help keep things human.

We need immediate change as

We need immediate change as well as the long-range ones Chief Stamper is advocating. What if active Chiefs throughout the country told their officers that they're grownups and can withstand words from lippy protestors without hitting said protestors, that officers are to move into action only when they're facing an individual who is causing actual harm--no general spraying of pepper, no wild swinging of batons. Maybe a little official shaming would help--what kind of wusses are so threatened by words and by the presence of unarmed civilians, that they have to start hurting them? The Chiefs need to quote that magnificent Marine in Times Square who told the NYPD officers around him that there is no honor in harming unarmed fellow Americans.

Norman Allen's picture

It is too late for talk

It is too late for talk about militarization. It started with Reagan when massive funds were diverted to militarize the society and let the military industrial complex become the dominant force of leading this society. We are set on a course of international expansion from which there is no return at this point. We are seeing the little skirmishes in the Middle East but bigger games are awaiting with China, Russia where vast numbers are at stake. Can't you see the encirclement of China? The war of words has already started.

Domestically, it becomes inevitable to mobilize the police and then the military if police fail to secure the interest of the 1% . The 99% will have to be prepared for huge confrontation. It is not easy to bring change in society without massive confrontation and unfortunate costs that goes with it. The 1% will not give up their privileges without force.

Thank you Mr. Stamper for

Thank you Mr. Stamper for this most insightful and evolved perspective on the possibilities for a new model for our police organizations, one which could be helpful all the way up the system.Dan Petersen

Our police officers must rid

Our police officers must rid themselves of the "big man on campus" mentality so many have. First and foremost, they are human beings, just like us. Secondly, they are part of the 99%, just like us. We are not the enemy, they should not be the enemy. We should work together - we're in this boat together, like it or not.

How would Andy Taylor

How would Andy Taylor (fictional character played by Andy Griffith) handle "Occupy Mayberry"? I expect he would handle it effectively without riot gear.

Why does America not respect the Officer Friendly model rather than the Arnold Schwartzneggar model?

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