A Conversation with Norm Stamper, Former Seattle Police Chief

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Image Courtesy of Norm Stamper

Who polices the police? According to Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief, the community.

On April 5, at 7 p.m. in the SURC Ballroom, Stamper will give a talk titled “Community Policing in the Age of Police Militarization” about the importance of community involvement in policing on local, national and global levels.

Stamper was a career cop, serving on both the San Diego and Seattle police forces for a total of over 30 years that stepped down from the position of Seattle Police Chief in 2000 following his hotly contested use of aggressive policing tactics, including tear gas, on protesters at the WTO riots in 1998.

Since his retirement, Stamper has advocated for revision in policing, including an end to The War on Drugs and a denouncement of increasing police militarization.

CWU HYPE Staff exchanged emails with Stamper to get some insight into his coming talk, what it will touch on, why it’s important to him, and why it may be important to you, too.

What will your talk, “Community Policing in the Age of Police Militarization” touch on?

The current state of community policing in America, the drug war and the damage it’s done to individuals, families, communities, as well as the costs to community-police relations and civil liberties. The spate of controversial police shootings and in-custody deaths at the hands of police. What we can do to strengthen constitutional policing at the community level.

Why are those topics important to you personally? 

I’ve spent my entire adult life as a cop or, as a consultant-trainer-expert witness, studying and commenting upon police policies and practices. I’ve witnessed the demoralizing effects of police misconduct on good cops, and seen damage done to the reputation of entire organizations caused by poorly trained or undisciplined individuals. It’s also heartening when I see community and police come together to police a city’s neighborhoods, and build a strong, mutually trusting relationship.

Why do you feel those topics are, or should be, important to the students and faculty at CWU?

I think it’s important to all Americans who value freedom, civil liberties, and safe communities to band together, with their police, to make that all happen. By definition, students, including those at CWU, are all about intellectual curiosity, and the search for answers to problems within their chose discipline. For those who’ve been disturbed by controversial shootings, and/or policing’s overly aggressive, militarized response to political protest–or who have been bothered by the tactics of the protestors themselves–the topic couldn’t be more relevant. 

Do you feel your experience in law enforcement has uniquely shaped your view on the issues of racial tension and mass incarceration from that of other, non-police, citizens? In what way? 

Yes. Like other cops, I’ve seen, up-close and personal, the harmful effects of race discrimination and mass incarceration on individuals and families, particularly in communities of color. 

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Stamper, not long before his resignation as Seattle Police Chief

Does your message differ if it is directed at college-aged people as opposed to older generations? How so?

Not really, not at all, actually. I may vary the way I approach these topics based on age or other demographic factors. But the message remains the same.

What does your message mean for small towns like Ellensburg? Or even more microcosmically, for college campuses like CWU?

I think smaller towns, and college campuses generally have an advantage in identifying, analyzing, and developing remedies for social problems in their “own backyard.” It’s a function of scale, really, and diversity (or lack thereof, a problem in itself). Generally, the smaller the political jurisdiction, the less complex its social, economic, demographic variables, the more likely it is — in theory — to reach consensus. Again, if guided by the “wrong” values (nativistic, racist, misogynist, homophobic, exclusionary, etc.), any community, large or small, is likely to reach agreements that, in my opinion, are unhealthy if not dangerous…and quite possibly unlawful. Fortunately, from my visits to your town, your university, that does not describe Ellensburg or CWU, though there are challenges in every community

What do you hope attendees walk away knowing or feeling after your speech? 

That the police belong to the people, not the other way around. That a strong, authentic partnership between the community and the police will create safer, healthier neighborhoods, improve officer safety and morale, and help to guarantee constitutional law enforcement.

Stamper’s talk will be immediately followed by a Q & A with students. The event is free, open to the public and is sponsored by the College of Arts and Humanities.

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