DRCNet Book Review: "Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing," by Norm Stamper (2005, Nation Books, 396 pp, $26.00 HB) 7/29/05

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Norm Stamper is probably best known as the police chief who lost his job in the wake of the 2000 "Battle in Seattle" occasioned by mass anti-globalization protests designed to shut down the World Trade Organization meeting there. Stamper's Seattle police, charged with protecting the proceedings and confronted by massive demonstrations spiked with occasional bouts of property damage by young anarchist cadres, went on a rampage of their own, violently assaulting nonviolent demonstrators and -- perhaps more crassly in the eyes of Seattle residents -- indiscriminately tear-gassing the innocent denizens of the city's tony Capitol Hill district. Stamper's performance then is certainly open to criticism, and his relatively sketchy account of that event in this volume won't quiet critics, but to remember Stamper solely for that brouhaha is to do an injustice to a man whose career has been a model of progressive policing.

In writing "Breaking Rank," Norm Stamper has taken a big step toward ensuring that his legacy is more than confused images of roiling demonstrators, tear gas dispensers, and flailing billy clubs. In an engaging, direct, and sometimes brutally frank mixture of memoir, social commentary, and police theory, Stamper demonstrates without doubt that he is a thinking man's cop. For those of us who focus on the drug war, with its horrific daily toll of arrests and imprisonments, SWAT raids and killings, its street searches and creeping police statism, its cliches mouthed ad nauseum by police officials across the land (as well as by pandering politicians and assorted moral entrepreneurs), reading Stamper is a necessary corrective, a tonic to quiet those cop-loathing tendencies that too easily result from looking too closely at the workings of drug prohibition.

While a healthy skepticism toward law enforcement is desirable, some of us need the occasional reminder that not all cops are thuggish Neanderthals. Stamper helps immensely. Working his way up through the ranks from a San Diego beat cop, he describes the sick pleasure he took in roughing up miscreants, but he also describes the epiphany he had at the hands of a scathing DA. As a progressive police executive, he examines sexism and sexual harassment within police departments, but doesn't flinch from addressing issues such as whether women cops have sufficient upper body strength to do the job. His accounts of police killings and of police killed reveal a thoughtful law enforcement executive grappling with the most fundamental issues and gives pause to those who are quick to shout "murder" every time a police officer guns down a suspect.

In a breathtakingly brutal and personal opening chapter, Stamper takes on domestic violence. The chapter is written in the form of an open letter to former Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, who shot and killed his wife in the ultimate act of domestic abuse, then turned his gun on himself. Stamper harshly berates the now-departed Brame as a "coward," even as he unflinchingly describes his own beatings at the hands of his father and his own resort to physical violence at home as an adult. But unlike Brame, Stamper recognized his inner demons and dealt with them. For anyone who has been affected by domestic violence -- and even those for whom it is no more than a theoretical problem -- Stamper's chapter is a call to arms.

For Stamper, the drug war is a failure, plan and simple, and the answer is what he calls "decriminalization," but what most of us would recognize as regulated legalization. The drug war is bad for police as an institution because it breeds corruption and distorts policing priorities, Stamper writes under the chapter heading "Wage War on Crime, Not on Drugs." It is time for police executives to speak out and end this fiasco, he says. "Right now the only people actively campaigning for sanity on the drug scene are hempheads, political mavericks, and career decriminalistas," Stamper notes. "If a small collection of thoughtful, currently closeted law enforcers were to make their views known they'd have influence far beyond their numbers." Stamper, by the way, sits on the advisory board of a group of mostly retired law enforcement officers who are doing just that, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

While fewer than 20 of the book's nearly 400 pages deal directly with the war on drugs, it should be required reading for anyone interested in drug reform or the larger issue of the proper role of the police in our society. The drug war cuts across all sort of policing issues, from the often mindless resort to paramilitary SWAT team-style policing to debates over community policing, from dealing with street crimes and violence to setting limits on searches and surveillance. Stamper looks at all of this, examining cop culture and police politics with an informed, incisive eye and a gripping narrative style. Readers may not always agree with Stamper's conclusions, but they will be well-served indeed to read him and think hard about the issues he raises. They are issues of key importance to all of us.

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Issue #397 -- 7/29/05

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Editorial: Clear Thinking | The Sensenbrenner Effect: Fear, Firing, and Fallout on the Hill | Congress: House Turns Back Repeal of Higher Education Act Drug Provision, Battle Returns to Senate | Meth and Myth: Top Doctors, Scientists, and Specialists Warn Mass Media on "Meth Baby" Stories | DRCNet Book Review: "Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing," by Norm Stamper (2005, Nation Books, 396 pp, $26.00 HB) | Weekly: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | The Feds: DEA Doesn't Follow Own Rules on Snitches, Inspector General Says | Methamphetamine: Congressional Drug Warriors Keep Up Pressure on Drug Czar | Asia: Plan to Legalize Afghan Opium Production Drawing Attention | Search and Seizure: Flex Your Rights Provides Citizens' Guide to Refusing New York Subway Searches | Drugged Driving: No Conviction Based Just on Marijuana Traces, Michigan Appeals Court Rules | Media Scan: Time and New York Times on Pain, Nadelmann on Controlling Medical Marijuana | Weekly: This Week in History | Job Opportunity: Outreach Coordinator, Students for Sensible Drug Policy | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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