This story appeared in VICE on August 18, 2014.
In recent weeks, incidents of lethal police violence against unarmed young black men have occurred in cities across the country, not just Ferguson. But in Ferguson more than anywhere, police doubled down on their role as a hostile occupying force in the community, showing off their massive collection of military-grade equipment and weaponry in a crude (and so far unsuccessful) attempt to intimidate the local population it purports to serve.
This isn’t the first time a local police force has turned an American city into something resembling a war zone in the name of civilian crowd control. In 1999, during the “Battle of Seattle” protests against the World Trade Organization, national headlines were accompanied by images like what we’re seeing out of Ferguson today: protesters being tear gassed and beaten by men in uniform. The Seattle chief of police was forced to resign in the wake of that debacle.
Since that time, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper has made an astonishing political transformation, not only owning up to his own mistakes at the WTO protests, but becoming a staunch advocate of reforming the police and legalizing and regulating drugs. I got in touch with Stamper to get his take on modern police culture and the militarization of law enforcement in Ferguson and across the country.
VICE: The images we’ve seen coming out of Ferguson over the last week are reminiscent of the ones we saw 15 years ago at the WTO protests in Seattle, when you were the police chief there. At that time, you almost immediately regretted your decision to use tear gas, flash bang grenades, and other military-grade hardware against the protesters, and resigned the day after the ministerial ended. What comes to mind as you watch the Ferguson police make essentially the same mistakes that you made?
Norm Stamper: A whole lot of heartbreak, and I have to admit to some irritation, and some righteous anger. It seems like the rest of the country is hell-bent—I think back to the Great Ape-Snake War, for example, and the May Day demonstration—that so many police departments seem to outdo themselves in not paying attention to the lessons of WTO. I made, personally, the biggest mistake of my career that week. If you’re looking for a prescription of what to do wrong, you need look no further.
I think with the advent of the drug war, which certainly preceded WTO in 1999, and, for that matter, 9/11, we still see something that is extremely troubling to me, and that is that in the name of the drug war, we continue to uniform, equip, and arm police officers as soldiers, and then commit them to early morning, sometimes pre-dawn drug raids, in which the target is somebody alleged to have a half a baggie of marijuana in the family home. And of course we’ve seen tragedy after tragedy result from that kind of mentality.
And then we get 9/11. I was retired roughly two years when 9/11 struck, and one of the things that was most unsettling to me was while we had a president who was saying “Bring ‘em on,” and talking tough and so forth, we were very slowly but surely sending a message to local law enforcement that this can happen in your community. Well, of course it can, but it hasn’t, nor is it likely to. That’s no reason, obviously, not to be prepared; it’s no reason not to do training exercises; it’s no reason not to have proper equipment on hand.
But what are the chances that it’s going to happen in Morven, Georgia, for example, which, as I understand it, is a department of about three people, who have acquired millions of dollars of federal military surplus? There’s a small town in Texas with one officer. He’s the chief, he’s the patrol officer, he’s the traffic officer, he’s the homicide investigator, assuming that jurisdiction ever gets a homicide. He’s it. And yet that small town has been given somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 to $4 million. Billions of dollars overall are portioned out to small departments with no provision for training, no provision for maintenance. And that’s a recipe for disaster. I’ve heard the expression that this is a situation very much akin to “boys with toys.” You give them this military equipment and they want to play with it.
You’ve written that, “simply put, white cops are afraid of black men.” You depict that phenomenon as not solely one of officers coming into the department as bigots, but also as a process in which the cops are learning prejudice and discrimination on the job. Can you explain what this looks like up close from your experience?
Let’s assume for a moment that a department wants to create diversity, sets out to do it. It has to make its organizational climate inviting. It has to make it hospitable to people of all races and ethnicities, to both genders and all sexual orientations. Whatever screening can be accomplished to help block those with racial or other prejudices is essential. And I think, all in all, law enforcement has done a fairly good job at the entry level.
But what happens to, let’s say, the average police candidate once he or she becomes a police recruit, and is going through the academy, is that they get exposed to the culture. And as professional as many police academies are, there are cops on the streets. And the cops on the streets are fond of saying things like, “Well, kid, forget what they taught you in the academy; you’re in the real world now.” And that’s really problematic. What’s being said in the real world and what’s being said in the academy ought to be the same, and it ought to be reinforcing non-discriminatory policing.
Let’s assume for the moment that you’re white, you’ve grown up in an all or predominantly white community, you’ve had little interaction with African-Americans, and you are now a police officer. And you’ve been told either in the academy or upon graduation from the academy, sea story after sea story of tales from the streets. You’ve heard about dangerous people. You’ve heard about individuals who have threatened or attacked police officers, pulled a gun on a police officer. Almost always, in police departments that are not thoughtful, those stories are situated in the black community. So what’s happening at a very subtle level—you don’t have to even express a racist point of view, you’re just simply telling a story from your point of view, as factually as you’re inclined to relate it. But what you’re doing, the meta-communication of all of that is: If you’re going to get hurt as a cop, it’s going to be at the hands of a black person. It’s going to be a male.
Nobody wants to get hurt, everybody wants to get home from their job everyday without suffering great bodily injury or worse, so it’s important for outsiders and insiders to recognize that officer safety is a legitimate and very important responsibility of executive leadership, and middle management, and first-line supervisors; indeed, it’s a responsibility of peers. So that if, for example, I’m scared of young black men that I meet on my beat, but with fear being a socially unacceptable emotion in police work, I can’t really express it, then I’m going to sublimate the fear, and I’m going to compensate in my behavior. In other words, because I’m scared, I’m going to act tough. I’m going to become the bully. Officers don’t say that, not even to themselves, but it is in fact, I’m convinced, what happens when fear is operating among white cops in black neighborhoods.
These recent events would seem to suggest that this culture of institutional police racism has not changed much since you began your career. Would it be a mistake to assume that?
It has changed a lot. That doesn’t mean it’s changed necessarily for the better. If it has become a sub-rosa problem, if it has become a hidden problem, in some respects, that’s even worse. Because if you get serious about improving race relations, one of the things you need to say to your cops is, “If you use racial or ethnic slurs, if you are trigger-happy, if you are heavy-handed in working in the African-American community and we document that case, you’re history. You’re out of here.” So one of the things that happens is, the tougher the talk gets, the smarter those forces within the ranks—not everybody, but those forces within the ranks who are for whatever their personal reasons, committed to a campaign of racism—will become more subtle and discreet. But if the phenomenon is still operating, it is going to affect the way cops behave toward the community.