- Norm Stamperformer chief of the Seattle Police Department and the author of the new book To Protect and to Serve: How to Fix America’s Police.
On Wednesday, President Obama met at the White House with law enforcement officials and civil rights leaders. President Obama hosted the meeting one week after the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and the killing of five police officers by a sniper in Dallas. While the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile made national headlines, they were not isolated incidents. According to a count by The Guardian, at least 37 people have been killed by police in the United States so far this month. That’s more than the total number of people killed by police in Britain since the year 2000. Overall, police in the United States have killed a total of 585 people so far this year. We speak to former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, author of the new book “To Protect and to Serve: How to Fix America’s Police.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Wednesday, President Obama met at the White House with law enforcement officials and civil rights leaders. President Obama hosted the meeting one week after the police—fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and the killing of five police officers by a sniper in Dallas.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The roots of the problems we saw this week date back not just decades, date back centuries. There are cultural issues, and there are issues of race in this country, and poverty and a whole range of problems that will not be solved overnight. But what we can do is to set up the kinds of respectful conversations that we’ve had here, not just in Washington, but around the country, so that we institutionalize a process of continually getting better.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: While the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile made national headlines, they were not isolated incidents. According to a count by The Guardian, at least 37 people have been killed by police in the United States so far this month. That’s more than the total number of people killed by police in Britain since the year 2000. Overall, police in the United States have killed a total of 585 people so far this year.
AMY GOODMAN: After Wednesday’s summit, President Obama said the nation is “not even close” to resolving issues between police and the communities they serve.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re going to have to do more work together in thinking about how we can build confidence that after police officers have used force, and particularly deadly force, that there is confidence in how the investigation takes place and that justice is done.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, our next guest writes, quote, “American policing is in crisis. … Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are two of the most recent casualties in what has become a deadly epidemic.” It may surprise you to learn who wrote those words—not a Black Lives Matter activist, but a former big city police chief. Norm Stamper is the former police chief of Seattle, Washington. He joins us now from Los Angeles, California. His new book, To Protect and to Serve: How to Fix America’s Police. He recently wrote an article for Time magazine called “Police Forces Belong to the People.” His previous book headlined Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing.
Norm Stamper, welcome back to Democracy Now! As you look at what happened in the last week alone, not to mention what has happened in the years since you were the chief of police in Seattle, what are your comments about how police are trained to deal with communities of color?
NORM STAMPER: You know, the training of police officers is a very prominent theme in the conversation about police reform, and it’s, of course, very, very important. But there are much deeper and important issues, as far as I’m concerned, namely those associated with the institution itself, the structure of the organization, the culture that arises out of that structure. It’s paramilitary. It’s bureaucratic. It insulates and isolates police officers from the communities that they are here to serve.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So what would you say, Norm Stamper, are some of the systemic problems of police violence? And what do you think has led to—you referred to the paramilitary nature of the police forces now. What do you think accounts for that?
NORM STAMPER: I think what accounts for it—there are several factors, one of which is that in 1971 Richard Nixon famously proclaimed drugs public enemy number one—drug abuse—and declared all-out war on drugs, which was really a declaration of war against his own people. And overwhelmingly, young people, poor people, people of color suffered, and have continued to suffer over the decades as a result of a decision to put America’s front-line police officers on the front lines of the drug war as foot soldiers. And then we wonder why there’s such a strain in the relationship between police and community, and particularly those communities that are entrenched in poverty and other economic disadvantage, communities that historically have been neglected or abused or oppressed by their own police departments. So we really intensified and escalated the country’s war against poor people with that drug war. And we have spent $1.3 trillion prosecuting that war since the 1970s, incarcerated literally tens of millions. Please hear that figure: tens of millions of disproportionately young people and poor people and people of color. What do we have to show for it? Drugs are more readily available at lower prices and higher levels of potency. It’s time for us to end that drug war. That began the militarization of policing, without a doubt.
9/11 is another milestone, for obvious reasons. The federal government began throwing military surplus at local law enforcement agencies, such that, in terms of how they look, in terms of how they’re equipped, in terms of how they are weaponized, America’s police forces look more like the military than domestic peacekeepers.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to remarks made by the New York police commissioner, Bill Bratton, who was speaking Sunday on Face the Nation.
COMMISSIONER BILL BRATTON: Police officers come from the community. We don’t bring them in from Mars; they come from the communities they police. And over the years, increasingly, we’ve had much more diversity in policing—Muslim officers, increasing numbers of African-American officers, Latino officers. And that’s a good thing, because the community wants to see that. And that’s part of the way we bridge the divide that currently exists between police and community, a divide that has been closing and a divide that we hope, over time—and certainly here in New York, I can speak for our efforts here the last several years, myself and Mayor de Blasio—to not only bridge the divide, but to close it.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. Your response?
NORM STAMPER: Our police officers do, in fact, come from the community. As Bill Bratton said, they don’t come from Mars. They are of us. They live among us. They are motivated by a variety of different interests in becoming a police officer. It’s not that—that the candidates that we’re selecting, necessarily, are poor candidates. It is what happens to them when they get acculturated by this law enforcement structure that makes it clear to them that they are on the front lines of a war against their own people. And so you get police officers heading out to put in a shift who are feeling that the people are the enemy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to Republican Senator Tim Scott, who spoke on the floor of the Senate Wednesday about being the victim of racial profiling. Scott is one of only two African Americans in the U.S. Senate.
SEN. TIM SCOTT: In the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers—not four, not five, not six, but seven times in one year—as an elected official. Was I speeding sometimes? Sure. But the vast majority of the time, I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood, or some other reason just as trivial.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Republican Senator Tim Scott speaking Wednesday. So, Norm Stamper, can you respond to what he said, and also whether you think the police is plagued with systemic racism?
NORM STAMPER: Well, let me start with that question. The short answer is yes. I can also cite another example closer to home for me. A former King County executive, Ron Sims, African-American man, man of the cloth, spoke to a reporter recently and said, “I have been stopped eight times by the police. And invariably the question seems to be 'What are you doing here?'” Do white members of our community get that kind of treatment? In blunt terms, it is racist. It’s a racist action on the part of an officer, if he or she does not have reasonable suspicion that a person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime. That’s what the law says. And yet that law is systematically defied by police across this country in unlawful search-and-seizure, stop-and-frisk situations.
But there’s also systemic racism. It goes back as far as the institution. And I know President Obama made reference to the long history, the centuries-old history, of the relations between police and community, and particularly communities of color. Policing in this country has its origins in the slave patrols. And from decade to decade, generation to generation, there are still police officers in this country who act with superiority, who act in a very authoritarian, very dominant way. Part of that is their training, and only some of that, by the way, takes place in the academy. Most of it takes place in the locker room or in the front seat of a police car, when the senior officer tells the junior officer, “Forget what they taught you in the academy. You’re in the real world now.”