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A Veteran Cop’s Ideas for Solving Systemic Police Problems

In his two books, Norm Stamper offers recommendations for change.

Norm Stamper was a cop for 34 years, including a stint as chief of police in Seattle.
The seemingly daily drumbeat of news of disastrous citizen-police interactions makes it clear that there is a real crisis today in policing in America. If you doubt it, search the words “police violence” on YouTube or Google and you’ll see what lots of our citizens have been seeing for a long time. A cottage industry has grown up around chronicling and counting these incidents, from the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project to The Washington Post blog The Watch, written by Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop.

This is not about a few bad cops or a few bad police departments. The problems we are seeing are systemic, and at some point we should no longer be shocked when a new revelation or disturbing video comes to light.

Few understand this as well as Norm Stamper. A cop for 34 years, which included stints as chief of police in San Diego and Seattle, Stamper has spent his career working to help police live up to ideals for policing in a democracy. In addition to dozens of op-eds and lectures, he has written two books, 2005’s Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing and To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police, which was published last month. Both books provide a sympathetic insight into the challenges faced by individual police officers and the organizations they work for. But they also provide solid recommendations for how to make things better.

Stamper examines the larger social context in which the police operate -- the war on drugs, the proliferation of guns and the continued legacy of racism -- and offers ideas on each: Decriminalize most drugs, enact the strongest possible gun control laws, and train white male cops to recognize and manage their fear of black men. He also makes the case that we should hire far more women as police. He thinks women should make up half of our police forces, up from the current 12 percent.

A theme that runs through both books is the idea of “the people’s police.” Stamper argues that effective policing is co-produced by citizens and police working together, with the citizens as the senior partner. They, he writes, can and should be involved in every aspect of policing, from hiring through training to disciplinary procedures. And he thinks the federal government should set standards for policing and proactively enforce them.

As Stamper notes, citing a Wall Street Journal report from 2015, payouts by city and county governments for police misconduct are estimated at about a billion dollars a year. That, and untold costs in the broader economy and in our struggle to create the kinds of communities we want to live in, ought to compel us to pay attention to Stamper’s thoughtful and constructive counsel. 

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at
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