The Case of the Tuggable Chief

Pulled by politics and scandal, can "New Age" Norm Stamper fight crime, clean up the department, change cop culture, and keep his job?

HAD YOU ASSEMBLED a perfect Seattle police chief from component parts, the result would look a lot like Norm Stamper. A San Diego cop since age 21, the 54-year-old Stamper arrived in Seattle in February 1994, early in Mayor Norm Rice's second term. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, the chief was a cheerleader for community policing at a time when the concept was still the topic of ridicule from veteran cops. While his New-Agey talk didn't hook the rank and file, he made an immediate favorable impression on the mayor and Seattle City Council members.

Stamper stumped for state Initiative 676, a gun training and licensing ballot measure. He engaged the public by taking most any speaking engagement offered. He formed a special detachment to focus on domestic violence. He was spotted in the stands at games of the women's professional basketball team, the Seattle Reign. And there has seldom been a more "Seattle" sentence than Stamper's take on his new Queen Anne condominium after his 1998 separation from his wife, Lisa: "Being able to walk to movies and coffee appeals to me." (Naturally, this comment appeared in the column of Seattle Times icon Jean Godden.)

So how has Stamper's new first name become "embattled" during the last month? And how did he pull his ass out of the fire last week? What explains last Tuesday's triumphant press conference at which the only possible threat to the chief's safety was being squeezed to death in a group hug from his boss, Mayor Paul Schell, and his chief city council critic, Tina Podlodowski.

On the surface, Stamper hasn't been the Teflon chief. However, it pays to remember that much of the criticism coming his way has merely been launched at the office of the police chief, not at Stamper in particular. Take the backers of making the examination of complaints against police officers more public, for instance: they see Stamper as a current obstacle, but a potential future ally.

Critics correctly blame Stamper, the ultimate book 'em and hug 'em police chief, for a moment of rare insensitivity when he sounded off about the violence, racism, and homophobia of the old cop culture which he experienced and participated in as a young San Diego policeman. His remarks could easily be seen as aiming suspicion at the senior officers of the Seattle Police rank and file.

LATELY, THE NORMALLY POLITIC chief has undoubtedly endured a remarkably awkward period of public and press relations. Stamper's much-vaunted communication skills have proven his undoing when the situation requires straight talk. In his two recent public addresses to the city council, the chief appeared unprepared, both in terms of his rambling remarks and his inability to answer questions. This jumble of platitudes and vague promises also seemed annoyingly reminiscent of his past run-ins with council members, who feel the chief has not only been ineffective in solving his department's continuing staffing problems, but has done a poor job keeping other city officials in the loop.

The chief has also drawn criticism from within his department, as he struggles to implement measures meant to modernize and reorganize the staid police bureaucracy. Rank and file cops have sneered at Stamper's devotion to community policing, saying the concept is merely a new name for walking a beat and that the creation of community police teams has drained resources from the department's all-important patrol and 911-response capabilities. But trying to effect change in the Seattle Police Department requires a man like Stamper, a onetime line officer turned crusading chief. It also, inevitably, involves catching a lot of flak.

The roots of the current crisis go back to mid-March, when it was revealed that two Seattle police officers were under investigation for an incident in which $10,000 in cash was stolen from a crime scene. A month later, felony theft charges were filed against veteran homicide detective Earl "Sonny" Davis Jr.; a second officer, Sgt. Don Cameron, was accused of helping to cover up the incident but was not charged with a crime. Still more damning was the information, confirmed by Stamper, that nine other officers knew of the Davis incident but failed to formally report it, including a sergeant in the Internal Investigation Section (IIS), the office charged with investigating and disciplining police officers.

Given the circumstances, the furor that erupted is hardly surprising. Proponents of an independent office to investigate police misconduct were energized by the controversy. Jerry Sheehan of the American Civil Liberties Union says the Davis case shows the department has no business investigating itself. The internal investigation system, he says, is "fundamentally structured and operated to favor police officers and to disfavor and thwart the complainer." Internal investigations are now run by the department itself and shielded from public view, with the deliberations of the seven-officer, two-civilian review panel monitored by a "police auditor," a retired judge who reports annual statistics to the city council.

On May 3, Mayor Paul Schell announced he was assembling a blue-ribbon panel to examine the system of investigating police misconduct, but Stamper stole the headlines with a contentious briefing and discussion before the city council, in which he announced his decision to issue only a verbal reprimand to the nine officers who had failed to report the theft. Council members exploded at Stamper's combination of tough talk about standards and his admission that the officers involved were getting away with just a slap on the wrist. "I'm sure a verbal reprimand from you is a terrible thing," council member Richard McIver told the chief. "But did anybody lose any money?"

But it was Stamper's next appearance before the city council, on June 7, that commenced his tumble down the slippery slope. Waiting to hear the chief's ideas on tightening the department's disciplinary policies, council members were infuriated when Stamper began with a rambling rumination on how the Davis case had damaged the department's image. Despite repeating his earlier pledge that the department would not tolerate misconduct, the chief offered little evidence he'd been working on the situation at all, despite prodding from McIver and Podlodowski. "He came up with some mealy-mouthed issue that wasn't responsive to our questions," fumed McIver after the hearing. "My question is, 'Is this man a good manager?'"

Set to face the council again the following Monday, Stamper managed to bring his public image down a notch when it was revealed that a police employee had surreptitiously attended and videotaped a press conference by several groups announcing a public meeting to discuss police misconduct issues. At the same time, the ACLU released its own report, blasting the internal investigation system and calling for an independent watchdog agency.

Which is when Stamper unveiled his much-discussed 12-point plan to address the situation. Presented first to the city council at a private session early last week as reporters and television cameras waited outside the glass doors of council chambers, Stamper unveiled his 12 points to press and public the following day.

Although the chief's outside critics weren't especially impressed, Stamper's plan includes enough controversial elements to temper his recent unpopularity among city council members. The chief has finally agreed to take the most serious corruption investigations outside the department by referring them to the FBI's Public Corruption Unit. He's put crooked cops on notice that the department will practice "integrity testing," or sting operations, to catch them in the act. The chief also pledged to update the department's performance evaluations, improve ethics training, and personally review all citizen complaints filed with the department's internal investigation section.

The ACLU's Sheehan calls the report "oversold" and says most of the changes Stamper proposes could have been done long ago. Still, although Stamper sees only a fraction of police misconduct complaints as meeting the threshold for FBI review, taking even a few cases outside the department for investigation bolsters the ACLU's arguments, says Sheehan. "It certainly acknowledges the concept that the department cannot or should not investigate itself."

Stamper says many of his proposals must first be cleared through negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, the union representing rank and file officers. Guild officials point out they've only received the same two-page outline given to the media. "We have lots of questions. We have some concerns, but we are lacking in information in any detail," says Mike Edwards, Guild president. He plans to meet with Stamper and other city officials to discuss the issues, then report the situation to Guild membership. "At first blush, there's tons of bargaining issues there," says Edwards. "But I think we want to afford them the opportunity to try to give us an explanation before we launch off and do something."

Despite the public impression that the chief seems to have narrowly escaped with his job, many disagree that Stamper's position was seriously threatened. Mayor Schell, Stamper's boss, has never wavered in his support of the chief. And no legislator has officially called for the chief's head. "Not at this stage," noted council member Nick Licata at the low point of relations between Stamper and the council. "He's still got some rope left."

Council member Peter Steinbrueck was more emphatic. "We don't hire and fire the chief, and no one on this [council] has suggested to me or even implied that he should be fired or he should resign," he said. "I don't, at this point, question his integrity or competency in the job."

The chief's missteps aside, most council members are well aware of the challenges of being a modern big-city police chief. Licata ticks them off: "He wants to maintain the loyalty of his chiefs, he wants to keep the Guild off his back, he wants to stay in good with citizens, and he wants to provide information for the city council."

Unfortunately, it was Stamper's poor performance at that last task that got him in trouble in the first place. The chief has held a spot in the council doghouse since last October's budget hearings, when he received a dressing down about his failure to provide prompt and accurate information on the department's continuing staffing problems. Podlodowski and council president Sue Donaldson snapped at Stamper after receiving a briefing long on promises but short on numbers. Donaldson demanded regular reports on recruiting and staffing. "How are we going to change the fact that we've wanted this for six years and haven't gotten it?" she said. This year, police representatives have been summoned regularly before Podlodowski's Public Safety Commission to deliver the reports in person.

Police staffing is serious business, and not just because every politician in recent memory, from former Mayor Norm Rice to President Bill Clinton, has gained popularity from pushing for more cops onto the streets. Seattle has had the opposite problem of late, as retirements have outpaced new hires. The number of overtime hours paid to Seattle officers more than doubled from 1994 to 1997, when the department had almost 100 fewer officers than the budgeted 1,248 and overspent its budget by $1.6 million.

The problem isn't police salaries. A Seattle police recruit starts at $36,132 per year, with semiannual step raises to a top salary of $54,516 after seven years. But even to make it to the police academy, potential recruits must negotiate a reading and spelling test, a problem-solving test, an oral interview, a polygraph exam, a background investigation, a reference check, a psychological assessment, and a physical. Even then, about 15 percent of recruits drop out during their six months of academy studies or four months of field training, according to Janice Corbin, the Seattle department's director of human resources. "A very low percentage of people that present themselves as applicants actually become police officers," says Alan Wallis, the recently retired Renton police chief who now works for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. "So you have to have a fairly large applicant pool in order to meet your needs."

Wallis blames the dearth of new recruits on a healthy job market. "The available pool of candidates has more options to pursue," he notes. Or, in Podlodowski's words: "There are jobs people can get that don't require putting their lives at risk and going through a year-long training process."

Applicants are also screened with a critical eye. Potential problems include an unstable employment history or an extensive record of traffic violations and speeding tickets. Any felony conviction means automatic disqualification. Social acceptance of casual drug use provides another major hurdle for departments in assembling an academy class. "Experimentation as a juvenile with marijuana is not going to disqualify you," says Corbin. "However, if you've smoked marijuana in the last six to 12 months, it might."

Stamper has significant motivation to get the numbers up. The council set aside a $1.6 million chunk of the biennial police budget last October, with the intention of releasing the money this summer if hiring goals had been met. The department only hired 68 officers (both new recruits and lateral entry officers) during the monitoring period from October to April—well below the goal of 100 hires. However, the number of officers leaving the department was well below expectations, so staffing levels technically meet the October goals. Given the new era of good feeling over Stamper's proposals, it's likely the council will release the money.

The quick City Hall turnaround over Stamper is probably less dramatic than it seems. Most department critics agree the chief is probably as good a candidate as any to lead the fight to change the system if he can be engaged. "We have been making progress in the progressiveness of subsequent police chiefs. But still, we see that this systemic problem of IIS has not changed," says the ACLU's Sheehan. "That shows us this is maybe not a chief issue at all."

Licata's ever-politic take on the recent events is that Stamper tends to "put himself in more trouble than he needs to." Others in City Hall privately suggest the chief just doesn't know when to shut up.

Harriett Walden of Mothers for Police Accountability has been a longtime critic of department misconduct, while generally a Stamper supporter. When the talk goes to personalities, "I think that the changes get lost sometimes," she says. "This is a time when I think that all people are going to have to look at accountability." Stamper, she continues, "is trying to create a new culture, and that's what I'm interested in. We've experienced and continue to live in a culture of violence."

"We're going from a paramilitary police force to something that's going to be a lot different and the model is still evolving."

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