Book review: “To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police” by Norm Stamper

These past few weeks have sparked some hard and much needed conversations around race in America and the role of the police. My wife and I have had some tough conversations ourselves, and we have been wrestling with our responsibility in helping undo systemic racism, and make American a safer place for some of its most vulnerable citizens. I have to admit, before I saw the tape of a police officer standing on George Floyd’s neck, I had been a blind optimist about racism in America. I couldn’t see it myself, and I thought the hardest battles were behind us, as illustrate so well in this tweet:

Sure, there were some crazies out there, but it was not representative of what America strives to be. I have now been confronting that the America black Americans experience is very different from the one I do. I may want it to be otherwise, I may think that America’s ideal that all be treated equally is implemented, but it isn’t the case. We still have a lot of work to do. I am grateful that George Floyd’s death has been a catalyst to open conversations that weren’t happening, but at what a cost.

I feel it is part of my responsibility to educate myself on some of these topics, and I’m just starting. I chose to start with a book on police reform. I found this book written by former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police. Stamper wrote the book after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by police officer Darren Wilson. As an insider, Norm knows how the system works, he can identify its many weaknesses while acknowledging its virtues. He isn’t an advocate for completely getting rid of police and we know it today. But he also doesn’t give a blind eye either. This is a scathing insider critique of a broken system. Stamper is unequivocal that this isn’t the case of a few bad apples:

The “few bad apples” theory is not enough to explain police misconduct. The kind of behavior widely questioned and condemned today is, in reality, part of a deeply ingrained, historically dysfunctional structure, that is, a moldering orchard, or, if you prefer, a rotten barrel…

That “vast majority” response has been worked to death, yet it gets trotted out every time a police officer shoots an unarmed teenager or a fleeing adult in the back. Or chokes or beats a man to death. Or, on the way to jail, subjects a handcuffed prisoner to a “rough ride” or a “screen test” (propelling the prisoner cuffed behind his back into the steel screen separating the front and back seats). Or rapes a motorist. Or steals drugs. Or plants drugs on an innocent person or a “throw-down” gun on a deceased suspect. Or kidnaps and tortures suspects and witnesses– with impunity.

But I also chose to read this book, because Stamper isn’t just trying to throw stones. He loved being a police officer, because it was a chance to help people. And he knows that most officers serve because they want to help people too. I find that the insider critique is one of the most powerful for this reason, as so beautifully expressed in Richard Rohr’s Eager to Love when critiquing the Catholic Church: The Catholic Church gave the friars and sisters… the scriptural, spiritual and theological tools by which to critique its own structures and practice, which is the only way to critique anything– from the inside out. I find Stamper’s critique to be honest, heartfelt, and hopeful.

I had actually stumbled upon a critique of policeman in a completely different book a few weeks previously, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by psychologists Carol Davis and Elliot Aronson. Police were just one of the featured mistake-makers, but this was certainly a big one: lying in court and planting evidence:

The practice of police falsification of evidence is “so common in certain precincts that it has spawned its own word: testilying.” In such police cultures, police routinely lie to justify searching anyone they suspect of having drugs or guns, swearing in court that they stopped a suspect because his car ran a red light, because they saw drugs changing hands, or because the suspect dropped the drugs as the officer approached, giving him probable cause to arrest and search the guy… One officer told the Mollen Commission investigators that he was “doing God’s work.” Another said, “If we’re going to catch these guys, fuck the Constitution.”

In some cases, cops can start out idealistic, but the practicalities get in the way. Constitutional rights are an inconvenience if it stops you from nabbing your guy. This is a dangerous example of when the ends justify the means.

One of the consistent threads throughout Stamper’s critique is an acknowledgement of systemic racism. In one of the most powerful chapters The Talk, Stamper recounts a conversation with his friend Dirul-Islam Shamsid-Deen, a chef in Washington state. Shamsid-Deen recounts “The Talk,” the conversation every black son and daughter has to have with their parents at some point just in case they have a run-in with the police:

What do you wear? How do you drive? What do you do when you get pulled over? How do you comport yourself, talk to a police officer?

Shamsid-Deen learned to dress neatly, “always neat” in order to “not bring attention to myself.” He came to think of clothing as a “costume,” designed to reduce his chances of getting stopped. Or, if stopped, to increase the odds of surviving the encounter. He wore clean trousers, his shirt always tucked in. He learned that a pressed white shirt usually meant he would not be ordered to the ground, and spread-eagled. And, as his father mandated: there would be no bulges in any item of clothing, ever. To this day, it’s automatic: Shamsid-Deen refuses to get into the car without putting his wallet and cell phone in plain sight.

I’ve always been a little wary whenever I see a police officer or get pulled over, but this is next level. I can’t imagine having to go out every day with this level of foresight. This is one example that really hits home systemic effects of racism. Sure, individual officers may not be racist. But even if police brutality were “a few bad apples”, that alone is enough to give black people a very different experience when encountering police.

This book covers a LOT of ground, though. He points out that police are held responsible for too many tasks, social ills they aren’t equipped for. Their organization is bureaucratic and militaristic. Police unions make it nearly impossible to make any meaningful reform. Many cities have come to rely on the police as a source of income, implementing quota systems that unfairly target poor communities.

In his solution, he draws on the founding document of modern police, which was crafted by Sir Robert Peel. Peel outlined nine principles:

  1. The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
  2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
  3. Police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
  4. The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
  5. Police seek and preserve public favor by not catering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.
  6. Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
  7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community and welfare existence.
  8. Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.
  9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action dealing with it.

Peel’s solution for police reform is community-based policing. Communities are to be involved in everything from hiring decisions to investigations of individual cops. It can’t be lip service either. In addition, the federal government should take a leadership role in establishing national standards. I think Stamper adds an important voice to the conversation. Cops can’t fix this alone, and it is us as communities that need to take a leadership role in making meaningful change.

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