Moving America Forward

Meet a Former Big-City Police Chief Who Wants to Turn American Law Enforcement on Its Head

April 22, 2014
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Meet a Former Big-City Police Chief Who Wants to Turn American Law Enforcement on Its Head
Police officers clear people from the streets of downtown Seattle while Seattle Seahawks fans celebrate after watching their team win the Super Bowl on February 2, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. David Ryder/Getty Images
He once ordered Seattle protesters to be gassed. Now he wants harsh laws abolished.

Past behavior doesn’t always predict future behavior. Norm Stamper is a case in point. Stamper was the Seattle Police Chief in 1999, when hundreds of people protested the World Trade Organization meeting. Under Stamper’s direction the police opted to disperse the protesters with tear gas. The tactics resulted in Stamper’s resignation and prompted him to begin a period of “very painful learning,” he told Sarah Stuteville of Seattle Globalist. He told her that using chemical agents to disperse the protesters was “the worst decision” of his career. Ever since, Stamper has been studying law enforcement in other countries to find techniques and ideas that could be effective for the American justice system.

In his book Breaking Rank, Stamper advocates some controversial law-enforcement ideas, including legalizing drugs, abolishing the death penalty, and relying more on citizens for enforcement than police. He told Stuteville that the drug war has incarcerated far too many people, especially minority men. “We’ve got the drug war raging since 1971 and pitting police against low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, creating natural animosity and tension between police and the community—in particular young people, poor people and people of color,” he says, pointing to Portugal, which decriminalized drugs in 2001, resulting in a decrease in drug use and overdose deaths.

Stamper says we can learn from communities in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where women gather to bang pots and pans outside the homes of men who abuse women, creating a ruckus to publicly shame the men and raise awareness of the problem. “I think we should return to the earliest days of primitive law enforcement,” he told Stuteville, believing that America can “have citizens that are attuned to, and actually carrying out, a public safety role.”

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