A Balanced Voice for Police Reform

I had many motivations for reading Norm Stamper’s To Protect and Serve. For starters, the news has been filled with stories of unarmed black men being killed during police actions. Footage from cell phones, body and dash cams, closed-circuit televisions, and other sources has confirmed that these individuals sometimes die under highly questionable circumstances, arousing protests throughout the country and galvanizing staunch defenders of the institution of American policing. The resulting unrest, which sometimes results in the destruction of property and the impediment of traffic on major highways, has forced all Americans to take notice.

There’s another more personal reason for me, however. Police are more than an institution in my life. They’re family and friends. Off the job, they’ve helped me move into my home, told me stories about my grandfather, hosted Thanksgiving parties, and shared video games. On the job, they’ve responded to scary car accidents, investigated suspicious individuals that scared fellow citizens, and checked to make sure I was okay when it appeared I might have car trouble.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive personal experience I’ve had, I’m not blind to the reality that many Americans with darker pigment than me have described on television, in publications, and at rallies. The deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile and Terrance Crutcher have all been captured on camera, and what they show corroborates the claims of many of the authors, activists and citizens who’ve announced these claims. In the interest of reconciling these opposing realities and learning more, I identified Stamper as a unique voice in the ongoing and deadlocked debate about community-police relations.

Norm Stamper is a former police officer who would eventually become Chief of Police in Seattle. He would oversee the disastrous World Trade Organization riots that rocked the city in 1999, resulting in numerous injuries and harrowing footage of protesters being gassed. Its Stamper’s adamant belief that he was wrong and could have done better that makes him unique. Through his writing, it’s evident that, whether fair or not, he owns everything that happened to both his officers and the protesters they dispersed during the riots.

To Protect and Serve is greatly enhanced by his perspective. He recounts numerous personal experiences as a beat cop and as a police commander throughout the book. That was important for me, since the principal argument that police make of their critics is that they don’t understand the needs and challenges of being an officer in a 21st century United States. Stamper dissolves those excuses, both by means of his extensive resume and, more importantly, by addressing them head-on.

The book touches on the growth of policing as it relates to two major issues facing society today: mental illness, and the militarization of the police as part of the war on drugs. Yet while Stamper criticizes the weaponization of police by the Nixon and Reagan administrations against communities of color, he never downplays the danger police face. He minces no words describing the sudden and horrific deaths that even well-trained officers who follow procedure can meet as a result of their chosen profession.

Stamper says the real issues lie with culture and training. He laments the rise of so-called warrior cops who see themselves as soldiers and members of their communities as “the enemy.” He says this mindset, and some of the reckless mistakes that have cost people their lives on both the police and civilian sides, are a product of fear. In Stamper’s view, the most dangerous cops are scared cops, and scared cops tend to make the wrong split-second decision when their weapon is drawn and they’re assessing a potential threat.

Like all great thinkers, Stamper doesn’t identify the problem without presenting solutions, and the book is brimming with ideas to reconcile police and communities that believe themselves to be at odds. Some are familiar, such as ending the prohibition of drugs in favor of treatment or focusing far more training on de-escalation instead of firearms skills. Others represent the cutting edge, such as the establishment of civilian review boards in an effort to ensure that police are held accountable by impartial citizens, rather than the government prosecutors that often rely on them to establish and maintain high conviction rates. Stamper doesn’t rattle off blanket prescriptions, though; every community, he points out, will need to experiment and tweak their way to improvement. What works for New York City’s police department is ill-suited to a small town in Nebraska.

One major recommendation is unique, in that Stamper is in favor of much more government involvement. Only the federal government, he believes, can establish sound and consistent rules and requirements for police training and conduct. He points to the Obama Justice Department’s involvement in communities that have been rocked by violence, and how even reluctant departments have come to embrace the valuable input and resources that the federal government can offer without additional burden on local and state taxpayers.

The most refreshing thing about To Protect and Serve is its balance. Readers who approach the book with an open mind will recognize, through its tone and content, that Stamper loves and respects the officers that strive to create safe and respectable communities. It is this love and respect that infuriates him with those who can’t stomach calling out their own when they do something wrong. At the end of the day, it’s clear that Stamper believes that such cops endanger the entire institution by deepening distrust and inviting senseless and evil reprisals.

Stamper’s number one priority is not protecting a romanticized image of policing, but on striving for a more just community. It’s clear he not only believes this will make fellow officers safer in their line of work, but also that there’s a moral imperative to do so. In this sense, he bridges a substantial gap. Indeed, that gap often feels like a chasm when watching talking heads shout over each other on news talk programs.

To Protect and Serve is a solid resource for learning about the challenges facing police, how citizens can help them and the communities they serve, and a way forward that might heal the wounds and divisions currently pervading our society when it comes to policing. If you believe that one can support the police and still criticize those unfit for one of the most dangerous, difficult, and important jobs in society, Stamper is a likeminded individual. One can only hope that his voice will eventually prevail in the ongoing debate.

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