"To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America's Police"

Aug 1, 2016

On this installment of ST, we speak with author Norm Stamper, who was a police officer for more than 30 years, first in San Diego and then in Seattle, where he retired as that city's police chief. He is widely credited as the architect of the nation's first community policing program and served as a founding member of President Bill Clinton's National Advisory Council on the Violence Against Women Act. Stamper talks with us about his new book, "To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police," which is a memoir/study/critique/history hybrid that sets out to untangle a very distressing paradox in American society. That paradox is thus described on the front flap of this book's dust jacket: "The police in America belong to the people -- not the other way around. Yet millions of Americans experience their cops as racist, brutal, and trigger-happy: an overly aggressive, militarized enemy of the people. For their part, today's officers feel they are under siege -- misunderstood, unfairly criticized, and scapegoated for society's ills." As was noted of "To Protect and Serve" in a starred review from Kirkus Reviews: "Most of the nation's approximately 18,000 police departments receive scathing criticism [in this book] from one of their own: an author who began as a San Diego beat cop in 1966 and rose to become a police chief in Seattle.... Stamper follows up his first book with a more contemporary -- and more critical -- account. He concludes that police departments as currently structured -- akin to military units with force as a dominant characteristic -- must be rebuilt. The author recognizes that almost every police agency includes a majority of uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives who place polite, effective service above brute force. However, he maintains, the rogue cops, although a minority, too often exercise undue influence, infecting everybody with their negative attitudes toward minority and mentally ill citizens, who deserve respect rather than stigmatizing. Stamper offers evidence that the problems transcend a small number of bad apples; he says the barrel is rotten and must be replaced. One solution must come from outside the police agencies: an end to the so-called war on drugs, which has spawned so much violence, both directed at and initiated by the police. Stamper would like to see legislatures and courts treat narcotics such as crack cocaine and heroin the same way alcohol is treated currently, as a public health matter leading to criminal charges only when drinkers harm other people. The remainder of Stamper's suggested solutions involve reconstituting agencies to replace the military command structure and mentality with a social services structure emphasizing nonviolent problem-solving over force. Ideally, Stamper would increase the number of female police street officers and commanders, believing they make more empathetic, less violent cops. The author does not shy away from specific incidents of unarmed citizens killed by police; he explains, for example, why Michael Brown should never have died in Ferguson, Missouri.... A vivid, well-written, vitally important book."