Former Police Chief Talks COPA And Community Policing Best Practices

Police Crime At Night
Johnny Silvercloud / Flickr
Police Crime At Night
Johnny Silvercloud / Flickr

Former Police Chief Talks COPA And Community Policing Best Practices

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The Chicago City Council approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to replace the agency that investigates police misconduct by a 39-8 vote Oct. 5. The new agency — called the Civilian Office of Police Accountability — aims to include more community input into police discipline than the Independent Police Review Authority. 

In his book To Protect and Serve: How To Fix America’s Police, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper discusses the ways police and the communities can best work together. 

On Monday, Morning Shift spoke with Stamper about policing in Chicago and America.

Q: One of the things you’ve said is that policing is in crisis. What kind of examples do you have that point to that?

A: Ferguson, Cleveland, North Charleston, South Carolina, Chicago, and many many other cities in the country over the last couple of years that have found themselves embroiled in controversy resulting from use of force.

Q: How is that trickling down beyond the headlines? How do these events affect policing in other parts of the country where these types of events are not happening?

A: Well we just had a recent example in which a police officer said that she was afraid to use her firearm — under circumstances she thought were legally justified — but was fearful of doing that because of the criticism that her family would face, that her organization would face, and so she wound up being beaten. And I think there is a good deal of sentiment among rank-and-file police officers around the country that they’re going to have to think twice about whether to engage in an act of force under circumstances that could come back to haunt them.

Q: How do you think communities should react to that example you’ve given?

A: I do believe that we’ve got to find a way to get Black Lives Matter talking with Blue Lives Matter advocates. Each is now its own movement. Each is quite muscular. 

At some point, if we can find the maturity and confidence needed to accomplish this, those two movements need to merge. We need to find a way to make policing in America a proposition that is jointly shared — that is in fact a true, authentic partnership between community and police. 

Q: In your book you call the war on drugs the worst public policy since Jim Crow and slavery. Was that declaration — made by Nixon and carried on by Reagan — a turning point in how police saw their jobs and executed their duties?

A: It was certainly a major turning point. You don’t fight a war without an enemy. And you need soldiers to fight that war. With that declaration, Nixon — and I should hasten to point out that every president has signed on to prosecute that war with roughly equal vigor — put the police officers of America into a position where they are by definition soldiers in the war against their own people. 

Q: We’ve seen more and more of a militarization of police, at Ferguson in particular. How much of a mistake do you think that has been in furthering the disconnect between citizens and police?

A: I think it’s a huge mistake. I always, if I’m asked this question — and if I’m not I’ll volunteer a response to it — and that is that there are times and places that demand military-like appearance, military-like weapons, military-like tactics. I am referring to rampage violence. I am referring to Columbine, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, the list goes on, Orlando certainly. These are situations that demand of local police the capacity — the equipment, the training, the discipline necessary to confront rampage violence or barricaded suspects who are heavily armed and who have taken hostages. You can’t go into those situations with pea-shooters. 

That said, we have developed an over-reliance on a militaristic response to policing in this country that is, in my view, quite dangerous. We do have in fact, police officers in Ferguson — one of the most iconic images was that of a police officer sitting high atop an MRAP — a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle — with a sniper rifle. And that was at a time when the protests were just beginning to build. We also saw a snarling canine. I happen to be fan of police dogs used properly. The absolute worst use of a police dog, dating back to Birmingham Bull Connor, is in crowd control. The symbolism of it is enough to strike fear I think in the hearts of many people who care about the police-community relationship.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the ‘Play’ button above to listen to the entire segment.