Clear and Present Chutzpah
By Silja J.A. Talvi
Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper's new book (Breaking Rank, from Nation Books) dares to speak the ugliest truths and inbred dangers of America's law enforcement system.
Chutzpah is one of my favorite Yiddish words, perhaps best translated as "brazenness" or "unmitigated gall." Stamper isn't a Jewish man, but chutzpah is something that he embodies. And he embodies it in spades.
Stamper didn't have to work hard to cultivate his chutzpah. He had it when his father was beating him as a child and he resisted the abuse. He had it when he decided to make the leap from working at a humble pet hospital in National City to be a cop.
He had it when he had the nerve to propose the idea of "community policing" as the eventual chief of police in San Diego. He had it when he had the nerve to propose that domestic violence was so serious an issue in Seattle that it deserved a police unit all to itself. And Stamper had chutzpah when he was willing to open his powerful new book with a letter to former Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, who killed his battered wife and himself in front of their two children.
That's just the beginning of this groundbreaking book. Not only does Stamper call for the legalization of drugs and prostitution, he goes to great and personal lengths to highlight the paramilitaristic, racist, homophobic and sexist threads woven throughout the fabric of American law enforcement. But Stamper is always careful to talk about the exceptions to those threads.
When we met in person for an interview, I admit to watching to see if Stamper's body language matched the words coming out of his mouth. Not only did the body language and the message match, but the joint effect of intensity and integrity is one I come across infrequently, at best, in my daily life.
If there's one skill that I can lay claim to, it's that I'm used to truly observing people as I'm interviewing or interacting with them. I'm particularly accustomed to watching cops and other people in law enforcement and corrections very, very carefully, to see if their gestures and facial expressions sync up with their utterances. Often, they do not.
It shouldn't be a mystery that most folks in uniform are not speaking as individuals; they are speaking as members of a force far greater than them. That force has the power to revoke their livelihood in a real way.
Retired and living in the San Juan Islands, Stamper isn't trying to get political props, or to move forward in his career. He's been there, done that.
Consider this: when he realized his own emotionally abusive tendencies toward the women in his life, Stamper not only went into therapy, but took the extra step to contextualize his patterns. He realized the same patterns were repeated by many men from all walks of life - the same kinds that eventually led Brame to his lethal course of action and destruction.
He doesn't ask for the reader's sympathy. The descriptions of his own abusive patterns are hardly sympathy inspiring. But Stamper gets real in order to try to get other men, including cops, thinking about the commonality of abusive behavior toward women.
"I didn't do any of that for purpose of soul-cleansing," Stamper told me. "I had come to terms with what I had been ashamed of well before writing it out. And when I came to the moment of writing about all of this, I had to think about how personal [I wanted] to get ... I've made a point of explaining to other police officers that you need to know yourself. You need to know where your shadows lie and what are those shadows concealing."
I asked Stamper about what happened at the WTO demonstrations. I spent the entire duration of the now-historic 1999 WTO demonstrations on the streets, reporting and photographing. I waded into the fray informed about the political issues involved, but without a strong partisan filter. By the end of that week, I was neither a fan of the so-called anarchist Black Bloc nor the Seattle Police Department (SPD).
In particular, I was outraged by the SPD's heavy-handed, often brutal, handling of the tens of thousands who had gathered to protest the specter of corporate globalization - to say nothing of the hundreds simply caught up in the fray as innocent bystanders. I told Stamper as much. His response surprised me because it went beyond even what's in his book, Breaking Rank (Nation Books).
"We blew it, on Tuesday morning, when we started to gas non-violent demonstrators," he says. "That was unfair, unjust and inhumane. We believed in the decision at the time. We thought, 'what choice do we have?'" Stamper's rationale then, as he explains, was that if ambulances could not get through in the event of an emergency, he needed to do something about it. The extremism of the response is one that Stamper is no longer comfortable with.
"I am clearly responsible for the decision," he told me. "And I'm sorry for that decision. It was the wrong decision and I should have vetoed it." None of this actually fixes what happened during those few days, but it is an unexpected admission. Stamper got me thinking about politicians (plus other people in power) and how hard it is to apologize when something's been done wrong. The fingers are always pointed elsewhere.
Come to think of it, many folks do it in their daily lives, even over the most trivial of mistakes.
Stamper breaks this pattern by pointing the finger inward -- and, by extension, explaining the mindset of some of the more unhealthy men and women in the ranks. He also gives plenty of props where props are due, never downplaying or glossing over what is, indeed, one of the toughest and most dangerous jobs in the nation. The power of the book is in all of this. Breaking Rank is not an easy thing, and I, for one, am grateful that Stamper had the courage to do it.
Silja J.A. Talvi is an award-winning journalist and columnist for Evergreen Monthly, and this article appeared in the November 2005 issue. Her email address is email@example.com.