Former SPD chief sees global solutions for police problems

Former SPD Police Chief Norm Stamper, who resigned following the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. (Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
(Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

I first heard former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper’s name as a furious teenager with a face full of tear gas. It was at the WTO protests that roiled Seattle back in 1999. I didn’t know much about globalization back then (I still remember learning the term “sweatshop” for the first time) but the experience launched me toward a career in international issues — and left me with a lingering fear of the police.

“It was a formative experience for you and for me, too,” says Stamper 14 years later in a downtown coffee shop not far from the epicenter of those long-ago protests.

Stamper’s tactics against demonstrators ultimately led to his resignation and sparked what he calls a period of “very painful learning.” Since then, he has reversed his opinion on the use of “chemical agents“ during the World Trade Organization protests and now describes it as the “worst decision“ of his career.

He’s also become an advocate for drug-policy reform — one with a distinctly global view.

“We’ve got the drug war raging since 1971 and pitting police against low-level, nonviolent drug offenders,” says Stamper, “creating natural animosity and tension between police and the community — in particular young people, poor people and people of color.”

An animated look at mass incarceration in the U.S.

Stamper, who is part of the nonprofit LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), says that the criminalization of drugs has in fact increased crime while degrading trust between communities and law enforcement.

He believes the recent legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Washington and Colorado is a positive step, but that it doesn’t go far enough.

For radical solutions, says Stamper, we have to look outside our borders.

“Throughout Latin America, throughout the European Union, throughout the world we’re seeing nation after nation come to the realization that the drug war is too costly for their economies,” says Stamper who has traveled throughout Canada and Australia with LEAP to learn about alternative drug-enforcement approaches and to lecture on reform himself.

But it’s not just about saving money for governments, Stamper says, it’s about saving lives.

He believes criminalization of drugs empowers drug cartels, increases drug overdoses and raises incarceration rates of nonviolent offenders.

Stamper cites Uruguay’s legalization of marijuana (including the growing, sale and smoking of pot) in December of last year as evidence of shifting global attitudes toward drugs and law enforcement.

An even better model may be Portugal, which completely decriminalized all drugs in 2001. The resulting decrease in drug use and drug-related deaths has been hailed as a model by policymakers and reformers.

“So we wind up in many cases with Third World countries and certainly more politically sophisticated countries in other parts of the world showing us the way,” says Stamper who thinks American law enforcement could learn about more than just drug policies from other countries.

Norm Stamper speaks at TedX Rainier 2014.

“In the Middle East and Southeast Asian countries, we’re starting to see women take the lead and force governments to recognize the sanctity of personal safety,” he says explaining that in some communities women bang pots and pans outside a home where domestic violence is occurring as a way of raising awareness, warning abusers and showing solidarity with victims.

“I think we should return to the earliest days of primitive law enforcement,” says Stamper who believes that the police should in fact be “junior partners“ to communities who take on primary responsibility for their own safety and security.

“Whether it’s Belltown or Ballard or Capitol Hill,” he says as he imagines a revolutionary new relationship between Seattleites and the police, “Wherever it happens to be, you have citizens that are attuned to, and actually carrying out, a public safety role.”

I wonder if there would have been as much tear gas in the air during the WTO protests under that model.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at