Making Police Truly ‘Protect and Serve’

As President Trump suggests police should be rougher with suspects, other voices from the police community say the behavior should go in the opposite direction, treating the public with more respect, reports Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein

Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, who laments that many Americans have experienced police as “an overly aggressive, militarized enemy of the people,” believes “the police in America [should] belong to the people — not the other way around.”

In a recent interview Stamper asserted that “Policing is the public’s business, and the public has the full right and responsibility to work collaboratively with local law enforcement.”

A sign at a rally in NYC on November 25, 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. (Photo by The All-Nite Images Flickr)

Stamper is calling for fundamental changes “in the federal government’s role in local policing as well as citizen participation in all aspects of police operations: policy-making, program development, crime fighting and service delivery, entry-level and ongoing education and training, oversight of police conduct, and–especially relevant to today’s challenges–joint community-police crisis management.” Says Stamper, “nothing will ever change until the system itself is radically restructured.”

Norm Stamper was a cop for 34 years, the first 28 in San Diego, the last six as Seattle’s police chief from 1994-2000. He resigned in the immediate wake of the so-called “Battle in Seattle” of 1999, where police famously confronted the first major international protests against the World Trade Organization with extreme and excessive force.

Chief Stamper took full responsibility for the breakdown and police overreaction and resigned directly following the confrontations. He has since devoted himself to reforming police actions and procedures through extensive community involvement in policing affairs. His most recent book is To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police. I spoke to Stamper in Oakland, California on July 26.

Dennis Bernstein: I’d like you to begin by telling us how you went from police chief in Seattle to globally-known police reformer?

Norm Stamper: It came with a recognition for me that not only is what we are doing not working but it is causing great damage to the community/police relationship. My position is that policing in this country needs to be radically reformed.

DB: Are you heartened by the formation of groups like Black Lives Matter to take back their communities? Do you support that kind of organization to restrain the police during this transition you are envisioning?

NS: Not only do I support it, I believe that a massive grassroots citizen strategy for educating and mobilizing is essential. Based on my 34 years of experience, I just don’t see the institution reforming itself. It may make modest incremental improvements but then slide backwards in terms of progress. We need citizens leading this movement.

DB: Why did you resign your position as Chief of the Seattle police?

NS: Most people would say I resigned in the immediate wake of the “Battle in Seattle.” I was extremely unhappy with the police response to what had begun as a nonviolent protest against globalization. We thought we were ready, we were not. We felt prepared to meet the challenges associated with a new and different form of organizing, a sort of early equivalent of social media, using cell phones, etc. But we were wrong on pretty much all accounts.

On the second day I made the worst decision of my career in authorizing the use of chemical agents against non-violent, non-threatening protesters. At that point I realized that my time was up and that the best way to begin a process of soul-searching and critiquing was to remove myself and end my tenure.

DB: Tell us a little more about what was going through your mind when you came to acknowledge your error.

NS: On top of the list was the realization that I was using militarized tactics against young people who had the courage and wisdom to oppose globalization in so many of its manifestations, to call into question such issues as intellectual property rights, child labor laws, and also criminal justice issues. How do we achieve a truly just society that is accessible to all people, not just here, but all around the world? It was very troubling to me to know that I was leading a militarized response to those conditions.

DB: Since that time we have witnessed the militarization of police departments and some very brutal killings committed by police. What is your impression of what we have seen since your resignation?

A screen-shot from a video showing Walter Scott being shot in the back by a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager on April 4, 2015. (Video via the New York Times.)

NS: First, it is obvious that police forces haven’t learned the lessons we learned here in Seattle with respect to handling mass protests. But let’s look at the catalysts for those protests: the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, the cold-blooded murder of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, the murder of Walter Scott in Charleston, the tragic death of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. What would possess a police officer to shoot a fleeing man in the back, in some cases someone completely unarmed? Then to lie about it, have fellow officers join in the cover-up, to have police executives and sometimes civic executives pretend that nothing happened.

We are never going to make progress until we learn what it takes to de-escalate conflict situations, to avoid them if possible, and to engage in crisis intervention tactics that have proven to work in the mental health field, for example. And why is it so hard to figure out a way to discipline police officers so that when they encounter these situations the outcomes are not fatal? This speaks to the need for fundamental reform. Not tinkering with the system but rather fundamentally reconfiguring American police work.

DB: It has come to the point where officers can simply say that they fear for their lives and then proceed to execute.

NS: If a police officer has undergone the proper training and enough of it, and is supervised and led by people who understand the sanctity of human life, we can put an end to this kind of behavior. I am tired of police chiefs standing in front of a bank of microphones and talking about the tragedy, for the victim and the victim’s family, for the community and for the police officers. The question is, how do we prevent such tragedies in the future? The answer is definitely not to continue what we are doing these days.

DB: There was a terrible case here in Northern California where a sheriff’s trainer named Erick Gelhaus shot a thirteen-year-old boy [Andy Lopez] who he supposedly thought had a real gun. Gelhaus fired something like seven shots in ten seconds. We learned later that Gelhaus was writing a column for Soldier of Fortune and was giving advice along the lines of “If you do shoot a thirteen-year-old holding a BB gun, you have to be able to show that you were really afraid.” This is a guy who had just got back from Iraq where he was taking out “insurgents.” He had twenty years of training for the sheriff’s department. Not only was Gelhaus not indicted, he was promoted!

NS: That story is repeated in jurisdiction after jurisdiction in this country. And we will continue to make those mistakes until we adopt a number of reform measures that I am advocating.

DB: Describe a few of those measures. What is your prescription for change?

NS: Three major recommendations would go a long way toward preventing the kinds of things we are talking about. Number one, end this drug war which has made police officers foot soldiers in a war against their own people, against people who are disproportionately young, poor, and of color.

Police officers watch a rally in NYC on November 25, 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. (Photo by The All-Nite Images Flickr)

The war against drugs has caused far more harm than good. It has cost one and a half trillion dollars thus far and, today, drugs are more readily available, at lower prices and higher levels of potency, than ever before. And, as we learned in the 1920s and 1930s, prohibition doesn’t work, it is a lousy organizing mechanism for US drug policy and should be replaced with a regulatory system.

Second, license every police officer in the country, making sure that every officer thoroughly understands and is able to apply the Constitution of the United States. Think of “stop and frisk,” think of laws of arrest, think of the use of lethal force, think of the gathering and preservation of evidence.

Build standards around every procedural justice set of tasks and then insist that every officer in the country, from Ferguson to the NYPD, understands and meets those standards. And if an officer gets fired, they don’t get picked up anywhere else in the country because they don’t have a license, they cannot practice law enforcement.

Thirdly, we must put the community in the driver’s seat. Citizens should be involved as partners in policy-making, program development and crisis management. They should have a say in hiring decisions. Credible citizen oversight mechanisms must be implemented, including subpoena power and the capacity to investigate and reach decisions regarding alleged police misconduct and lethal force issues.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at

16 comments for “Making Police Truly ‘Protect and Serve’

  1. Daniel
    August 5, 2017 at 09:08

    I commend the ex-police chief for his good intentions and compassionate thinking but fear he does not go nearly far enough, as some posters here have already stated. Sure, citizens should be involved in the shaping and implementation of police practices, but who is in charge of shaping them now? On whose orders have they resulted in the aggressive, deadly tactics now commonly employed? And how do we begin to wrest these powers from such (unnamed here) persons and place them in the hands of the citizenry? Until we can draw a direct line from policy design to implementation – and name the names of the powerful forces who’ve created such policy, there can be no reform.
    You can say the same about most matters in the US today: Anti-society policy designed by an out of touch/who-cares elite who are never touched by the failures/deadly consequences of said policy’s implementation. One could get to thinking that the powers that be just want us all to cower in fear, suffer and die so that they can continue to horde their billions unchallenged.

  2. Hope
    August 4, 2017 at 10:29

    NOT ONCE HAS THE AUTHOR SPOKEN or EXPOSED ISRAEL’S ROLE in TRAINING, PROGRAMMING AMERICAN POLICE FORCES who go to Israel as do the British, Australian and Canadian Police who ALL have become Aggressive and do not PROTECT AND SERVE their People anymore but are programmed to use brutal Force as the Israelis do against Palestinians on a daily basis- shoot to kill and then ask questions from their dead or brutalised victims
    America must be very proud to have its Police Force programmed -trained by their greatest ally and friend- Israel.
    Police Forces are now being used as the Private Forces for the Ruling Psychopathic Governments we all now have. Is this the prelude to their New World Order Police Forces.
    Just look at the crime rate in Chicago that has trebled and has one the highest crime rate and police brutality since their Dual Israeli national Rahm Emanuel took office as Mayor.
    Shoot to kill and ask questions later is the New programme being taught America’s once protect and serve’ Police forces.

  3. exiled off mainstreet
    August 3, 2017 at 14:58

    Considering the barbaric record of yankee police, resulting in the police homicide of over 100 people a month, (check the website ) and the fact the US police act like an occupying army, and are given the extra-legal privilege of using “asset forfeiture” laws to engage in wholesale theft from the citizenry, I would have to say that Trump’s statement is absurd and counterproductive and stupid, particularly in light of the fact he himself is being victimized by the yankee legal system via the ongoing extra-legal witch-hunt based on an obviously cooked up narrative (the Mueller probe)

  4. anarchyst
    August 3, 2017 at 14:13

    Ever notice that police unions are fraternal? This makes police little different than a “street gang”, albeit with the power and authority of the state behind it.
    There is much angst and consternation over police practices and abuses, many of which seem to get “glossed over” by police-friendly prosecutors and court officials. Behavior that would get an ordinary citizen charged, convicted and incarcerated seems to be overlooked, made excuses for, and “swept under the rug”. Grand juries, guided by police-friendly prosecutors are reluctant to bring charges against police officers, even when evidence would dictate so.Even with incontrovertible video and audio evidence, police are quite often “given a pass”. Even if they are found to be involved in wrongdoing, they are quite often picked up by another department.
    A cop’s life is no more valuable than that of a citizen. In fact, cops should be held to a higher standard of conduct. If a cop is not willing to give up his life to save a citizen, he is in the wrong line of work.
    “Escalation of force” must be drilled into every police officer’s psyche. Anything less puts the citizenry into grave danger–the situation that presently exists. Any cop who cannot disarm a person holding a knife or other inanimate object such as a stick or rake without using lethal force is in the wrong line of work.
    When a person being detained by cops is being yelled at by two or more officers, each one barking out conflicting commands, it is no wonder that the person is subject to lethal force for not obeying commands. All an officer has to declare is that “I feared for my life”. THAT one explanation (excuse) gets more dirty cops off the hook than just about anything else. “Shoot first and ask questions later”. A compliant prosecutor and union will get you off…
    Here are some solutions that would help to curtail police abuses:
    1. Abolish official immunity for all public officials. The threat of being personally sued would help to curb abuses.
    2. Abolish all police unions. Police unions protect the guilty as well as help demonize their victims.
    3. Require all police officers to purchase an insurance “bond” at their own expense. No bond=no job. You can bet that insurance companies would be more diligent in getting the “bad apples” out of police work than the present municipalities and unions..
    4. Require dash and body cams to be operational at all times when dealing with the citizenry. Immediate permanent dismissal should await those who do not follow that procedure.
    5. Interrogations must be videotaped in full. It is no secret that police routinely lie to suspects in order to extract confessions. There are many cases of innocent people being harangued into admitting to crimes they did not commit..
    6. Random and incident-based drug testing should be required as a condition of employment. Testing for steroids should be a part of the random testing requirement, as many cops “bulk up” with steroids. Steroids also affect users mentally, making them more aggressive. and should be prohibited.
    7. A state-by-state or federal database should be established–a “blacklist” of those persons who should never be allowed in police work.
    8. Police should never be allowed to investigate themselves. Investigations should be conducted at the state level.
    9. Most people are unaware that police have special privileges when it comes to investigations into their own questionable behavior. Police have 72 hours in which to “get their stories straight”–(collusion at its finest), and (not so for us ordinary citizens), cannot be interrogated without a “union representative” present, and cannot be held in custody, even for capital crimes.
    10. Any laws put in place that affect the citizenry must also apply to cops. Weapon types, magazine capacity restrictions and any other laws enacted that affects the citizenry must also apply to cops–no exceptions.
    11. More and more communities are utilizing “subdued graphics” on police vehicles. This is a dangerous practice that has resulted in danger to both cops and citizens. Any traffic stops must be conducted with clearly marked vehicles and uniformed officers–no exceptions.
    12. “No-knock” SWAT raids must be abolished. There is never a reason to avoid knocking on the door to announce your presence. Even the Nazis knocked on the door before gaining entry. Smashing everything in sight is never warranted.
    13. “Asset forfeiture” (actually legalized robbery “under color of authority”) must be abolished. This ties in with the so-called “drug war” which has corroded law enforcement and the Constitution almost beyond repair. Most people are unaware that perverse “incentives” exist for cops to “grab as much as they can” as many communities purposely decrease police department budgets by the amounts that cops grab from unsuspecting innocent citizens. In addition, the federal “equitable sharing” program does the same thing. Add to that, the “corruption factor, in which a cop sees a pile of cash on a table–and sees his children’s college education money–the temptation is there.
    14. Militarization of police departments must cease. It is a loosely-guarded secret that Israeli trainers have been advising police departments on handling citizens. As Israel is on a “war-footing” its tactics are very different. These Israeli tactics have no place in American law enforcement.
    15. Veterans hired as police officers must undergo extensive “deprogramming” to remove the “us vs. them” attitude that exists in combat situations.
    In today’s police state climate, where the citizenry is treated as animals, forced to submit to police barking out commands without question, it would appear that “we are all Palestinians, now”…
    Attention, police: WE ARE NOT THE ENEMY…
    If the situation doesn’t change, “blowback” will be the result. Those who are aggrieved who “strike back” will only see the uniform and not the person wearing it.
    Every cop deserves to go home to his family after his shift. Shouldn’t the same be afforded to every citizen.

    • exiled off mainstreet
      August 3, 2017 at 14:59

      An excellent summary of the major problems.

  5. Ol' Hippy
    August 3, 2017 at 14:11

    I like the ideas espoused by the former chief. We need a complete reworking of the culture of policing, as a form of repression and control of the citizenry. First the ‘drug war’ has turned cops into soldiers fighting a losing battle with high level distributors and their rings all of which use violence to protect their assets. Second there seems to be a certain level of prejudice built in, be it against blacks, other minorities or perceived enemies. I know about this first hand; in the 70’s I had long hair as many hippies did,(and still do) and was ‘hassled’ incessantly by over zealous red neck cops. One night I received five tickets on my motorcycle and none were moving violations. This is still prevalent though the ‘hassled’ have changed demographics.
    The sad part is with Sessions as AG the repression of strict authoritarianism will increase and cops will continue to behave with impunity and being shielded from prosecution or convictions if prosecuted. We can do better.

    • Joe Tedesky
      August 3, 2017 at 16:06

      I hope you don’t mind me adding another story to yours, but my story sounds close to being like yours. It was 1970, and I had just left the Navy base to return to my home for the weekend, when upon taking the turnpike exit to my city I picked up a hitchhiker who was standing at the end of the exit road. Back in those days, hitchhikers were common, and I always picked up other service men (they were always men) or college students, who back in those days they all looked pretty hippie (for the lack of a better description).

      As I drove into the city limits, I noticed a motor cycle policeman was following me. After he rode behind for a few blocks, the cop put on his Kojak light, and he pulled me over. Remember this is 1970. Back then I got out of my car, and approached the police officer, questioning him to why he pulled me over. The cop then told me of how it looked kind of odd seeing a guy with a nice hair cut (Navy regulation) with a passenger, who the cop thought looked like one of those damn college hippie instigators. Nice. Back in those days I was kind of a bad boy myself, and just flat out told this good old boy cop, of how there was no law broken here, and that if he were finally done with his jag-off inspection then that was the end of it, and that me and the hippie were going to go. I must have said something right, because that’s what me and the hippie did. The hippie was a political science major, and his deferment sounded to me to me legitimate…although that kind of stuff like people getting out of the draft never bothered me, because I felt strongly of how that each and every individual had to make up their own mind to if they wanted to serve in the armed forces, because I thought that was their right. I also was hoping that these college protesters would be enough to change the system we were all falling victim too, and that their efforts could help change this.

      I must add, I also know, and knew, a lot of good cops in my time. My advice to the cops I use to drink with, back when I drank, was for them to quit defending the bad cops, but then that’s like screaming into the wind…because they are cops, they stay united, a little too much united for my liking, but still they remain there for each other. I guess you would need to be a cop to understand this, but bad cops in my estimation make it bad for everyone, especially and including the good cops. Was you ever in such a bad place, where all you prayed for was a cop? Well, there’s that too. Oh if only it was that easy.

  6. bobzz
    August 3, 2017 at 12:10

    I am particularly enamored with the law that allows police to confiscate the property of someone who is SUSPECTED of a drug related crime. The victim does not even have to be formally charged let alone go to trial or a formal plea bargain. Take your money, your car, your cash, etc. Due process, where are you?

  7. mike k
    August 3, 2017 at 07:40

    I am amazed and puzzled that commenters on CN have shown so little interest in the police issues in our burgeoning Police State. Are we waiting for the armored, hooded thugs to break down our doors before we will acknowledge their importance to a fascist state such as ours? These are the tools used to make our oppression real. These are the human agents who brutalize and possibly kill you, or take you away to an intentionally evil prison to be abused there. Fascism is the religion of force, violence, and domination. We need to address it in all it’s manifestations now, while we still have the chance. This is NOT a side issue.

    • mike k
      August 3, 2017 at 08:03

      Long ago when I read Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People, I knew I was such an enemy myself. A friend of truth, and an enemy of lies and liars. I know that I am on government lists of undesirable persons, and I accept that as a natural consequence of my opposing our abusive, power crazy culture. If that is my karma, then so be it. I do not intend to change in any way to make myself more acceptable to those in charge of our diseased society, any more than Dr, Stockmann in Ibsen’s play would go along with the lie that the “healing’ waters of his town’s Spa were not actually polluted and poisonous. A metaphor for the noxious lies our government is selling as God’s truth.

    • exiled off mainstreet
      August 3, 2017 at 15:00

      It is not. The yankee police state walks and talks like a fascist duck.

  8. mike k
    August 2, 2017 at 12:46

    i have been beat up by the cops. Many of them are thugs before they join the force. Many others become thugs by trying to fit in with the thug culture of the cops, in order to be accepted and not seen as “weak,” This culture could be changed, but many of the higher ups like it as it is, like Trump does. He is a coward and a bully and a fascist – so the idea of tough cops turns him on. Donald Trump is a thoroughly disgusting human being.

  9. Drew Hunkins
    August 2, 2017 at 10:49

    A few years ago I read Stamper’s excellent book “Breaking Rank,” can’t recommend it enough. Among other things, one section that stuck with me was his expounding on how a vast chunk of white cops are flat-out afraid of black men, period. Ergo, many times they resort to heavy-handed tactics in response to minor provocations.

    It was a stark and candid — though morally disturbing — admission.

  10. Joe Tedesky
    August 2, 2017 at 10:33

    We need more Chief Norm Stamper’s to come about, and to change the police state culture that has taken over our American streets. Our foreign wars, are now coming home to haunt our citizens.

    Although, the article didn’t mention it, I would like to know why our American city police departments are filing into Israel to learn the Israeli techniques to crowd control, and fighting crime? Where does the militarization of our law enforcement officers end, and when will this be replaced with interacting relationships meant to unite the neighborhood with their police departments?

    At the rate this is all going, it won’t be long until we are all behind a chain linked fence. No matter, we can’t continue to go in this direction, because once the bad guys are swept to the side, then these goons posing as law enforcement agents will come after you, and yours….it’s just a matter of time.

  11. Joe Tedesky
    August 2, 2017 at 10:22

    Watch this…

    How many tours of duty in the Middle East did it take to train these officers to become so brutal, who were once hired, to serve and protect it’s citizenry?

    • rosemerry
      August 2, 2017 at 15:46

      I noticed two comments praising the action. Violence seems to be the accepted way for some people to act and want police to act.

Comments are closed.