In the public eye: former SPD chief Norm Stamper stumps for change

Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, an Orcas Island resident, offers his views on the state of police forces today during a two-hour talk, Sunday, at Skagit Valley College
Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, an Orcas Island resident, offers his views on the state of police forces today during a two-hour talk, Sunday, at Skagit Valley College's San Juan Center.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen

By Steve Wehrly/Journal reporter

On the Saturday after the Seattle WTO riots in late 1999, Norm Stamper resigned as Seattle’s Chief of Police.

“I was terribly sorry I did what I thought was right,” he told an audience of 50 Sunday afternoon at Skagit Valley Community College in Friday Harbor.

For six years, he continue to think he was right to clear 6th and Union St. with tear gas and truncheons, even as he admitted that mistakes in judgment were made and people hurt by police misconduct.

His book, “Breaking Rank", published in 2005, recognized some of those mistakes, but it took a year of book tours, a year of “listening with my heart and my head,” and a year of WTO protesters telling him, “I don’t respect you for what you did that day”, before he admitted that, “I was wrong. It was the cop in me that made that decision, not the chief.”

After that first half-hour, Stamper, who now lives on Orcas Island, covered a lot of ground and answered a lot of questions in the next 90 minutes, starting with a carefully-calibrated discussion of “The Militarization of the Police After 9/ll” — the announced topic of the talk sponsored by San Juan County progressives.

Stamper did not criticize the many communities that have started police swat teams or provided police with military equipment and training. Among other examples, he recollected that San Diego was fortunate to have a well-trained police swat team to stop the 1984 “McDonald’s Massacre”, after 21 deaths and 19 injuries.

“There is a need for SWAT teams and military equipment and tactics,” Stamper said. “If you need these tools, you must have training, training and more training.”

Still, Stamper argues that two wars — the War on Drugs and the War on Terror — “are turning cops into soldiers.”  He views both “wars” as insufficient reason for the federal government to massively fund the militarization of law enforcement in “even the tiniest communities.”

“We have carried homeland security to an extreme,” he said.

When videographer Tom Munsey asked a question about the Homeland Security Department’s Secure Communities Program, Stamper said he needed to find out more about the program, but did note that, “A policeman is not a border patrol officer or an immigration officer…aliens should not be afraid to report a crime for fear of being deported.”

He sees the war on drugs as an “utter failure,” responsible for a trillion wasted dollars, millions of non-violent prisoners since the 1970’s, and “the disintegration of countless African-American families.”

The answer? Legalization of all drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. He laid out his case as to why legalization of drugs is a better approach for communities and for drug users than continuing in the "war" against drug in an opinion piece published in February by the Seattle Times.

“If we legalize it, we can regulate it. If we regulate it, we can control it,” Stamper said.

And, he maintains, we can shut down an industry in which “drug profiteers are making $500 billion per year.”

Asked about the arming of the civilian population and the need for gun control, Stamper replied, “I started out as a proponent of gun control”, and, “I used to want to “confiscate them all”, but realizes that’s not about to happen.

For now, he said that, "... every gun should be registered and every gun owner licensed. Firearm training should be required, and gun locks and locked gun storage boxes mandated.”

Although one or two questions turned into statements from the audience, most seemed to agree with Sheriff’s Rob Nou’s reason for attending: “I’m here to listen.”

And so was the audience, who gave Stamper a round of applause and a warm goodbye.



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