Ex-Seattle Police Chief Defends Citizens Filming Cops: It's 100% Lawful for an American to Do It

July 14, 2016


Norm Stamper

former chief of the Seattle Police Department and the author of the new book To Protect and to Serve: How to Fix America’s Police.

Protests against police brutality continue in the aftermath of the police killings of two African-American men, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. We look at how people who record police violence have themselves been targeted, harassed, arrested and even imprisoned. In Baton Rouge, store owner Abdullah Muflahi was detained after he recorded Sterling’s death on his phone. Meanwhile, an Air Force veteran in Atlanta named Chris LeDay was arrested and held for 26 hours after he posted video of Sterling’s death. We speak to former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about the people who are arrested, the people who are filming these police attacks on civilians, the police killings. Yesterday on Democracy Now!, we had this extraordinary show. First we spoke to Abdullah Muflahi. He’s the man who owns the Triple S supermarket in Baton Rouge, who was a friend of Alton Sterling, who sold CDs outside. He came outside his store quickly. He saw what was happening to Alton. He took out his cellphone, started filming. Right afterwards, after the police killed Alton, they arrested the owner of the store, Abdullah Muflahi, and they went into his store without a warrant, and they took out not only the video that the store had, they took the entire video camera. And then we spoke to Chris LeDay. He had posted online the second video of the police killing of Alton Sterling. He’s a 12-year Air Force veteran. He works on a military base outside Atlanta. He comes to work, and he is surrounded by police. He is first handcuffed, then he is shackled. He is put in an orange jumpsuit. He is held for 26 hours. He kept saying, "What are you arresting me for?" And one police officer said, "You fit the profile." And he said, "You have to finish the sentence. I fit the profile of what?" Ultimately, he was charged with not paying old traffic fines. Can you talk about what happens to those who document the crimes?

NORM STAMPER: Well, what happens to those who document these crimes is exactly what happened to those individuals in Baton Rouge.

This is a good time for me to insert a really important point, and that is, we have some wonderful police officers—sensitive, empathetic, compassionate—who, if they harbor racist or homophobic or sexist bones in their body, have learned to manage themselves, have learned to calm things down, to de-escalate, to defuse tense situations. They’re worth their weight in gold. And they need to be recognized. They need to be appreciated.

But we have altogether too many officers that police chiefs and sheriffs are fond of calling bad apples. Well, when you get as many bad apples as we seem to see in police work today, it’s time to examine the barrel. It is time to look at the entire orchard and to recognize that even a fresh apple placed into that toxic environment is going to turn bad.

So, as we look at, for example, a police officer being questioned about—a police officer questioning others, a police officer behaving very aggressively, if not unlawfully, toward individuals, a police officer shooting and killing someone unjustifiably, to see some—to see a fellow American filming that, snapping shots, filming it, audio, in some cases, is a—should be a source of comfort to many of us in the community. It is completely, 100 percent lawful for an American to do what those Americans did.

Now, here’s what I’m sure the police are saying: "We were evidence gathering. We had information that somebody captured this, so we’re to go after that evidence." And there’s nothing wrong with gathering evidence. The question is: To what end are you going to put that evidence, and how did you gather it? It is unlawful, by definition, to engage in illegal searches and seizures. The Constitution of the United States, the secular Bible of the land, tells police officers what they can and cannot do. And right now, a whole bunch of them are doing things that, by law, they cannot do.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Norm Stamper, I wanted to ask you—last year, the large California-based affiliate of the United Auto Workers said they wanted the International Union of Police Associations kicked out of the union federation, claiming police have, quote, "utilized union resources to defend brutality and anti-Blackness." The International Union of Police Associations is still in the AFL-CIO. But what is your response to that, the role of police unions?

NORM STAMPER: Well, those who have read my first book understand that I’ve said I’m a labor guy through and through. I get goosebumps when I hear Joe Hill. My kin from Kentucky come out of coal mining. I am a pro-labor human being. But I draw the line at police unions. I think far too often they have shielded racist and brutal and trigger-happy police officers. I get their role to defend their fellow officers, but they do it in such a way that communicates to the community we’re going to circle the wagons, we’re going to do anything and everything we can to protect this lawbreaker.

I think it’s time for national standards, by the way, Amy. I think it’s essential that we recognize that policing is largely unsupervised in this country. There are no national standards—18,000 police departments, one Constitution. What does that tell you? It tells me that systematic violation of the Constitution is only rarely addressed in a Department of Justice investigation. Better to set national standards, certify all police officers and their agencies, and decertify those so they can’t go from Seattle, if they get fired, to NYPD the next day, which does happen. We need national standards.

AMY GOODMAN: Norm Stamper, in one minute, finally, can you respond to what you believe the police should be doing in Cleveland at the Republican convention, not to mention the Philadelphia police? I mean, years ago, I was the recipient of your police force’s massive tear-gassing of the protesters and the journalists who were covering the Battle of Seattle in 1999, something you have said you were very sorry about, overall, how the Seattle Police Department dealt with the protesters, arresting over 600 of them. But right now we’re moving into two major conventions. We see they’re opening up more police space. They’re going to open the courts for 24 hours a day in Cleveland to arrest protesters. What is your advice to the Cleveland Police Department—and to protesters?

NORM STAMPER: It’s a little late in the game for my advice, but my advice would have been to build trust between themselves and protesters, to invite protesters, to the extent they’re willing to accept such an invitation and not feel co-opted by the police, in co-planning, co-preparing and, indeed, co-policing that, so that the First Amendment rights of all of those Americans who will be assembling there will in fact be honored. It’s kind of late in the game to—if you need a friend, to make one. But I would say that in the few remaining hours before those police interact with the protesters in Cleveland, that they do everything in their power to convey that they want—that they will, in fact, be protecting the First Amendment rights of their fellow citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Norm Stamper, former chief of the Seattle Police Department, author of the new book To Protect and to Serve: How to Fix America’s Police, recently wrote an article for Time magazine, "Police Forces Belong to the People." He spent 34 years on the police force—again, the former police chief of Seattle.

We’ll be headed to the Cleveland Republican National Convention and, after that, to Philadelphia, to the Democratic convention. We’ll be expanding our broadcast to two hours daily, starting next Monday, for the next two weeks, to bring you the voices of people in the streets, in the corporate suites and on the convention floor. That’s our special, "Breaking with Convention," for the next two weeks, beginning on Monday.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. When we come back, a father and son join us to share letters they wrote to each other after the police killings last week. Stay with us.

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