Norm Stamper on Militarization

At the same time that the Global Commission on Drug Policy was releasing their report, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs was holding a hearing on police militarization.

Retired Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper’s provided testimony. I thought it was pretty good, so I’ve included his entire written testimony after the jump.

Statement of Norm Stamper, Seattle Chief of Police (Ret.), advisory board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and Author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing

Introduction. Something has gone terribly wrong with American policing. Never wholeheartedly embraced by a freedom-loving people, the institution recently has suffered a major blow to its image, and to community-police relations. Thanks in part to the federal government’s 1033 Program, which furnishes Department of Defense military surplus to city and county law enforcement, we have seen a rapid and massive expansion in the militarization of local policing exemplified by, but not limited to, the tragedy that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri this August. This trend is disturbing in the extreme, and must be reversed in the interests of public safety and community support for law enforcement.

As a former police chief who has made these mistakes myself (during the 1999 WTO protests in which I authorized military gear as well as the use of tear gas against nonviolent demonstrators), and who has spent the past 15 years working to atone for these past transgressions, I urge a top-to-bottom overhaul of the 1033 program. This is a task best reserved, I think, for multidisciplinary experts (tactical, legal, ethical) combined with a cross-section of the American people and subject to congressional oversight. I do not mean to suggest, however, that tightened regulations, to include inspections, must await a more comprehensive examination of the 1033 program. On the contrary, the current situation demands immediate remedial attention.

I also urge consideration of the role of the federal government in mandating or encouraging additional law enforcement reforms implicit in this paper and along the lines of those developed during previous generations of national inquiries into local police practices.

Community policing. Throughout the ’90s many cities began adopting the policies and practices of community policing. The essence of community policing is deceptively simple: the citizenry and the police working together, in full partnership, to identify, analyze, and solve crime and other neighborhood problems—including, as necessary, the community-police relationship itself. The goal? Safe streets, healthy communities, and a strong community-police bond.

Of course, such a relationship demands a high level of trust between police officers and the people they serve. But even in the most advanced versions of community policing (i.e., those that embrace systematic, joint community-police problem-solving, and reject a cosmetic or “PR” approach), this trust has been elusive. I believe there are two fundamental reasons for this.

America’s War on Drugs. First, the drug war, as the expression implies, has served as the impetus for many departments to “militarize” key aspects of the work, by which I mean procurement of military vehicles and weapons, adoption of military garb, use of military and quasi-military tactics, even the vocabulary of war as local agencies carry out missions to target and defeat the enemy—defined overwhelmingly as drug offenders, be they users or dealers.

From the onset of the drug war in the early ’70s, this “enemy” has been disproportionately young, poor, and nonwhite. Many agencies argue that this is merely a statistical outcome, not an intended consequence.

But since President Nixon famously proclaimed drugs “Public Enemy Number One” and prioritized their eradication, an impossible goal, what has transpired is less a war on drugs than a war on the American people. We have incarcerated tens of millions of young, poor, black and Latino Americans for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. The devastating effects of the drug war on inner-city residents, in particular, cannot be overstated. Families have been fractured and individual lives damaged if not lost. Entire neighborhoods have been turned into war zones, resulting in plummeting property values and a deeply diminished quality of life for millions of Americans. Across the country, residents have been forced to change the way they live and how they raise their children as a result of fear—of both drug trafficking and of law enforcement’s aggressive, militaristic response to it.

Which brings us to the second barrier standing in the way of mutual trust between the police and the people they serve.

A history of paramilitarization. The drug war and post-9/11 considerations aside, policing has, from its early moments, been organized as a paramilitary bureaucracy. How a law enforcement agency is organized—not just the work it does on the streets—gives rise to and shapes an imposing workplace culture. The “cop culture,” whether in compliance or in defiance of department policies and community expectations, pretty much determines the performance and conduct of our police officers.

Much has been written on the powerful influence of this culture, its positives and its negatives. At the heart of current controversies, however, one negative stands out: the tendency of our police officers to isolate themselves, to distance themselves from the residents they have been hired to serve and in the process to form an in-group solidarity that is all but impenetrable. The militarization movement has dramatically exacerbated this tendency.

Starting in the early ’90s, even as some agencies embraced the language of community policing, most were moving incrementally toward an increased military presence in the communities they serve. SWAT accounted for the bulk of these martial actions, and upwards of 80 percent of all SWAT operations were, and remain, dedicated to low-level drug targets.

The “9/11 Effect.” In the aftermath of 9/11, with new and legitimate concerns about homeland security, we saw a major escalation in the militarization of our police forces. Given the federal government’s generosity in distributing military equipment, vehicles, and weaponry—with virtually no strings attached (no demonstration of need, no training, no maintenance)—we have seen even tiny, rural police departments transformed into small armies, their peace officers converted into soldiers. With no real homeland security challenge, many of the 18,000 local police departments in the U.S. have too often employed their new military materiel and weaponry against essentially nonviolent, nonthreatening citizens.

In light of what we witnessed last month on the streets of Ferguson—city and county police officers clad in “camis,” combat boots, ballistic helmets, and carrying semi-automatic military rifles—even an officer poised prominently atop a tall MRAP (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle), tripod-mounted sniper rifle at the ready—it is no wonder that so many Americans believe their local cops have become an occupying force, military in appearance, military in demeanor, military in tactics.

If my understanding of the pre-existing relationship between the largely black population of Ferguson, Missouri and its largely white police force is accurate, what happened in the hours after the controversial August 9 shooting death of an African-American teenager was depressingly predictable. Simmering fear, resentment, and tension exploded when at a peaceful vigil the police showed up looking and acting like storm troopers.

Imagine a pre-existing relationship in which the police of Ferguson had instead reached out to their community, had already forged a genuine partnership with its citizens who want nothing more than safe streets and an effective, respectful police force.

Collateral damage. A single unnecessary or unwise militaristic action can destroy any hope of a constructive community-police relationship: the wrong house hit in a predawn raid of the family home; an elderly, unarmed resident caught in the crossfire; a toddler severely burned by a SWAT “flashbang” grenade; the family pet shot to death in the midst of a “shock and awe” invasion; a police officer killed by a disoriented, bewildered homeowner. Any one of these is enough to create a permanent rift in the way a community views its police force.

In the years prior to 9/11 there were roughly 3,000 recorded SWAT missions annually in the entire country. After 9/11—and notably, with the proliferation of the 1033 military surplus program—SWAT operations have mushroomed to more than of 50,000 separate missions per year. Many of these operations have been carried out by enthusiastic but undertrained and undisciplined police officers. The “collateral damage” has been staggering.

The difference between cops and soldiers. The purpose of our military in wartime is to kill or capture the enemy. By contrast, the purpose of our domestic police agencies is (1) to prevent crime (murder, sexual assault, burglary, domestic violence, grand theft, child abuse, arson, etc.) (2) to detect and apprehend those who commit these criminal offenses (and to assist in their successful prosecution), and (3) to provide other public safety services, ideally in seamless partnership with the residents who benefit from these services. Soldiers follow orders for a living; police officers make decisions for a living.

There will always be times, places, and circumstances that demand a military-like approach with military-like discipline, decisiveness, tactical precision and teamwork. Active shooter incidents, armed and barricaded hostage-takers, and school and workplace shootings come to mind.

The challenge, then, is as obvious as it is difficult to meet. How do we build a police force of honest and honorable men and women who treat one another and the communities they serve with dignity and respect and who have the physical strength, psychological hardiness and resilience, self-confidence and self-discipline required to handle the full range of duties they are called upon to perform when these activities range from a bank robbery in progress to a crib death; from a school shooting to a nonviolent crowd of protestors?

The answer is complicated but within our grasp. It involves, at a minimum, a careful selection process for choosing new police officers, rigorous training, diligent supervision, effective discipline, and competent and courageous leadership—from elected officials, civic leaders, community activists, and, of course, the police chief and the police union.

It also demands a willingness to tackle the complex structural and cultural barriers to reasoned and responsible police work. Daunting though it may be, we can and must reverse the militarization trend of American law enforcement.

I believe it all starts with a decision. We must decide to view America’s cities as DMZs—demilitarized zones. And to treat our police officers as mature, respected partners of the community, even as we demand they act as such. I’ve written extensively on these and related subjects and invite readers to peruse selected chapters of my book, relevant, I believe, to the issues arising out of Ferguson: “Why White Cops Kill Black Men,” “Racism in the Ranks,” “Staying Alive in a World of Sudden, Violent Death,” and “Demilitarizing the Police.”

Thank you for your time and for discussing this important topic.

Norm Stamper, PhD

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5 Responses to Norm Stamper on Militarization

  1. claygooding says:

    I hope this doesn’t get lost in the effort to protect the oil industry’s investments in Iraq.

  2. allan says:

    Get ’em Norm! Thanks for posting all of this here Pete.

  3. Malc says:

    Wow, well said, Norm!

  4. ezrydn says:

    What a difference time can make. I worked under Norm, as a civilan, at SDPD when he was the Asst. Chief under Kollander. Talk about night and day! Glad to see the smart pills worked, Norm. Now, pass the Dark Chocolate, please.

  5. Servetus says:

    Defending one’s rights is not a crime. Violating a citizen’s rights is a crime, however. Besides the needed improvements noted by Mr. Stamper, some police officers may require an attitude adjustment, or maybe a rigorous course in constitutional law would help:

    “Cop To Cameraman: ‘If You’re Invoking Your Rights, You Must Be Doing Something Wrong’”

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