Reading Room






Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper



It is ironic that a man who spent decades building a career as a progressive law enforcement executive will probably be most remembered as the police chief who presided over debacle that was the 2000 "battle in Seattle." Norm Stamper is doing his best to change that with the recent publication of his book "Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Exposť of the Dark Side of American Policing." The man viewed by some as Seattle's head storm-trooper turns out to be a thoughtful, passionate, and careful analyst of the myriad issues confronting American law enforcement. Ranging from racism and sexism in the ranks to training smart cops to the backroom politics of big city policing and on to the hot-button issues of capital punishment, the rights of criminal defendants, and, of course, the war on drugs, "Breaking Rank" showcases a first-rate law enforcement intellect. In our review of the book two weeks ago, we strongly recommended it to our readers for the insights it brings into policing issues that go far beyond the drug war. This week, though, we talked to Stamper about drugs and drug policy.

Drug War Chronicle: What are you calling for in terms of drug policy?

Chief Norm Stamper: I believe it is time for a radical overhaul of the nation's drug laws. It's time to get out of the business of drug enforcement as we know it. The drug war has been an abysmal failure, causing more damage than it has prevented. In the book's chapter on drug policy, I wrote that I favored "decriminalization," but if we go to another printing, it's one of two or three things I will revise. What I really meant was legalization and regulation. I don't think the government should get completely out of the business -- it should set standards for purity and regulate the business the same way it regulates alcohol and tobacco. Some people say you can't legalize heroin or meth or PCP, and in the book I took the position that PCP should stay illegal. But upon reflection, even though there are real problems with using some of these drugs, I think everything an adult wants to ingest, inhale, or inject should in fact be available to him or her. Adults who decide to drive around under the influence of drugs or batter a spouse or furnish substances to children or commit any other criminal acts should be held accountable, but the current crime of drug use should just not exist.

Chronicle: How widespread are your views on drug reform among law enforcement executives?

Stamper: There are a minority of chiefs and sheriffs who favor decriminalization or legalization, but you are not likely to get too many incumbents speaking freely about this sort of view on a problem they've been confronting for decades. Last week, I spoke with a chief who said he agreed with me in my drug chapter and I said "Can I quote you?" and he said "No," so I won't. It's a sad commentary that we can't at least have that conversation. It would bring to the table some of the people who are almost as affected by this as drug users and their families, and that's law enforcement. Society decides to use the criminal justice model to address what is essentially a public health issue, and that's as shortsighted as anything I can imagine.

I got serious talking about these issues back in the early 1990s. I gave a series of speeches to corporate executives where I spoke about the folly of the drug war and my objections to it, and I found that those business folks got it. They understand supply and demand and the cost of government, and some of them may have moral doubts about legalization, but very few objected to what I was saying. In the late 1990s, I spoke to the Cascadia Mayors' Conference -- cities like Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. I spoke to the mayors and their staffs and laid out exactly this position, and all around the room heads were nodding. There wasn't a single objection. There was much agreement in that room about the failure of the drug war.

While I don't focus exclusively on drug issues, I intend to do everything I can to help advance this cause, help the people who are out there doing this work. I think we have demonized drug use from the beginning, back in the days of the Harrison Act [1914], when it was mainly about revenue. We had to demonize the behavior, and over the decades since, instead of talking about public health or medical problems we talk about drug scenes. The notion that drug users or drug scenes are criminal by definition allows us to behave toward them any way we see fit. And with the war on drugs metaphor, they become the enemy -- with little appreciation of the fact that the enemy is my neighbor, my brother, my child. That makes it all the easier to reject the notion that there is any constituency working on behalf of these criminals. But when we are investing billions and billions of dollars year in and year out to wage war against this class of people among us, our moral and financial investment has backfired. It hasn't paid off, but it's very hard for people like politicians and law enforcement, who are invested in the drug war. Those on the supply reduction side are not about to fold up their tents and go home.

It's a cash cow. I know from personal experience that asset forfeiture produces substantial sums of money for local police. There are few chiefs who would fraudulently use that money, but it creates a hell of an incentive for any character-challenged beat cop or chief to misuse those funds. The real question is what would happen if police were taken out of the drug enforcement picture. I think we'd see a substantial reduction in property crime, for one thing. We would be able to provide drugs to those who want them instead of having them rip off your car stereo. What we are doing is just folly. We need to be spending money on prevention, education, and treatment for those who want it, but we don't get it because we're spending too much on law enforcement. Those invested in the drug war continue to use their own propaganda to advance the cause of drug enforcement.

Chronicle: Those chiefs and sheriffs who disagree with you on drug policy must have seen the same sort of eye-opening things that caused you to rethink drug prohibition. Are they true believers, or do they know better and are just keeping their mouths shut?

Stamper: Most are true believers, but a sizeable and influential minority is just being hypocritical, and that's unconscionable. They know this war on drugs is unwinnable, it's just throwing good money after bad, yet they continue to pursue ever more funding for drug enforcement. That's almost pathological. If you really believe you're making a huge public policy mistake and yet you talk publicly an entirely different game, you're the worst kind of hypocrite. But as I said, most chiefs are true believers. They really believe the only way to keep drugs out of junior's arm is to clamp down on drug use and spend tons of money to enforce the drug laws.

Chronicle: How do you bring the issue in from the cold?

Stamper: I think it comes down to the physics and politics of the tipping point. I believe that with people of influence and integrity -- like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Drug Policy Alliance, and DRCNet coming together -- we are drawing near to the tipping point. It is time to have this conversation about drug reform. Chiefs who are emphatic and articulate on the issue have been reluctant to speak up, but we are seeing more and more people muster their courage and connect their hearts with their mouths.

One thing we need to do is make sure those people in law enforcement who do speak out are wrapped in support. People who are afraid of endangering their careers need to know they will be supported. Each one who comes out brings us closer to critical mass, to the tipping point. We don't need 51% of police chiefs; it might be only 8% if you get the right people speaking out at the right time in the right circumstances. I've found through experience, for example, with the way we deal with domestic violence, that you don't need a majority of your cops supporting reform in that, just a few percent. Then you start to see policing that is more dignified and more respectful of the citizen. There is a real contagion effect when people of good will who have done their homework speak out.

Chronicle: You spoke of chiefs worrying about endangering their careers if they speak out for drug reform. How so?

Stamper: If he's a sheriff, he might not get reelected. If he's a chief, he's sitting on top of a sizeable narcotics budget, and that money could evaporate. You don't get too many chiefs saying please take this pot of money away from me. It depends on the political makeup of the community. I spoke out some in conservative San Diego, but then I moved to progressive Seattle to be chief, where I could say things like this. But if I were chief in, say, Orange County, California, I might be committing political suicide by advocating for significant drug reform.

There are chiefs whose private view is that the drug war is silly or stupid, but they still make public statements pushing drug enforcement aggressively. They handle their integrity conflict by reducing the amount of resources they commit to narcotics even while they're talking tough. They're basically assigning it a lower enforcement priority. The problem is, as long as you've got the laws on the books, you better be able to show you are enforcing them. Many of our vice laws are ridiculous and counterproductive, but the last message I want to send to the community is that I'm not going to enforce them. When you avert your glance from gambling or prostitution, the first thing people ask is whether your agency is protecting that activity. Imagine what they would say about a hands-off policy for drug dealers. As long as the laws are on the books in a democratic society, the last thing you want is police not enforcing them. Somebody once told me that if I believed drug law enforcement was misguided, I should get out of the business. No, I shouldn't. The lawmakers need to get me out of this business. To do that, it is critical that police executives who have thought this through work with them to get those laws changed.

Chronicle: How does enforcing drug prohibition pose problems for law enforcement? Does it reinforce negative elements of what we might call cop culture?

Stamper: You hear police chiefs talking about the necessity to build trust and respect between the community and the police. But when our narcotics officers are working drug dealers and turning sellers into snitches and cultivating stables of informants it fosters an environment where public confidence gets compromised. Look, there will always be a need for informants for some crimes -- that will never go away, and it shouldn't. But when you're dealing with drug dealers and trying to develop snitches, it can get real ugly. A lot of cops go bad. They may have been vulnerable in terms of personal ethics, and put them in narcotics or vice and watch out! And then there are cops who take it to a whole other level, like the ones in the LA Ramparts scandal. They stole drugs. And they set people up. There is a special place in hell for cops who do that. What those Ramparts officers were was a criminal syndicate.

Chronicle: This week I'm writing yet another story about one of those hyper-militarized, SWAT team raids gone bad, this time with a 23-year-old kid killed over a couple of ounces of pot. Isn't there a better way of doing this kind of policing? And even if such assaults are necessary, what's with the trashing of people's houses and possessions? That seems to happen with great regularity.

Stamper: The rationale for "high risk warrant service," such as drug raids, is to take the suspect down in his own home, usually at o'dark thirty, and to hit the house with sudden, unexpected, overwhelming force, both decisions designed to catch the suspect unawares, reduce the chances that he can/will get to a gun or dump the dope, and minimize risks to officers, neighbors, innocent passersby who might be caught in the line of fire if there's any shooting. In other words, the cops are trying to control every aspect, every variable of the operation. Of course, this doesn't explain or excuse the "wrong house" mistakes, or shots fired unnecessarily. For that, I think you look to judgment and discipline compromised by fear, adrenalin, machismo -- and drug war zealotry.

As for the trashing, as a reformed cop, I can tell you in my rookie year I used to really enjoy kicking in a door and rifling through drawers in search of a seed. It was insane, a reflection of some very twisted priorities and a badge-heavy hunger for power. I think it is part of an adventuring mentality. Look, if you're in search of notes from a terrorist plot, rip the shit out of everything, but there is no justification for tearing up somebody's home or business on a drug raid. The lack of civility that too often accompanies these raids is very counterproductive. It does nothing but further the mistrust, suspicion, and objections so many citizens have to police practices.

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     Last Updated on Wednesday July 25, 2007.