Chief Norm Stamper’s memoir attempts to remake the man who ordered the gassing of nonviolent protesters at the WTO protests in Seattle 11/99 into a progressive hero. I called him on it in the sfbg, while admitting that I somewhat enjoyed his entertaining book…

REVIEW “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” ought to be the subtitle of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing, the sometimes gripping, sometimes tedious memoir of former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper. Six years after thousands of protesters, cheerfully rioting in the streets of his city, forced the chief to resign in disgrace, Stamper made the rounds of the talk shows and progressive media forums with a book that, in its calls for drug decriminalization and harsh criticism of police violence, at times could have been written by the protesters themselves. A mixed bag of anecdote, polemic, and reflections on police work, Breaking Rank, now in paperback, chronicles Stamper’s personal journey from gung ho, racist rookie on the San Diego police force in the early 1970s to the famously liberal, community relations wiz Seattle papers called “New Age Norm.”

In a book full of mental health jargon and quotes from self-help screeds, Stamper makes it clear this is a journey that couldn’t have taken place without hours of therapy. “Psychotherapy was a great gift,” he writes. “It helped me understand and deal with the sources of my childhood wounds and my adult insecurities.” 

Stamper’s progressive platforms brought Breaking Rank the most attention when it came out in 2005. But his examination of police work through the lens of his own therapy produces his most original takes on cop culture. In the first chapter, “Open Letter to a Bad Cop,” Stamper scathingly addresses a contemporary, Tacoma police chief David Brame, who in 2003 shot and killed his estranged wife, then shot himself. Identifying himself as a survivor of childhood abuse, Stamper highlights Brame’s past history of domestic violence and sexual assault and suggests that the United States’ militarized police culture is inseparable from misogyny, sexual harassment, and abusive behavior. Drawing a link between cycles of domestic violence at home and police violence acted out in the streets, he goes so far as to suggest that abuse itself is what draws a certain type of person to police work, telling Brame, “I wish I knew whether, like so many of us [police], you were beaten as a boy.”

Stamper, like many adherents of therapy, tends to use psychoanalysis to oversimplify the world. It was the abuse by a father who “beat feelings of unworthiness into [his] flesh” that fed his attraction to the police force, where the dangerous work “represents another nail in the coffin of doubts of [his] adequacy as a human being.” But could that really be the case for all cops? Surely just as many are drawn by a steady paycheck, or the prestige of the uniform. And surely just as many who started out good were brutalized by the nature of the work as the other way around. Still, Stamper’s insistence on seeing the roots of police violence in misogyny feels fresh, and in chapters like “Sexual Predators on the Force,” the book’s critiques are at their most thought provoking.

Sadly, many of Stamper’s other provocatively titled chapters, like “Why White Cops Kill Black Men,” fail to deliver on their promise. Why do white cops kill black men? Well, the eight-page chapter explains, it is simply because of “fear.” Other chapters with titles calculated to shock (see “Capital Punishment: The Coward’s Way Out”) are also fairly predictable, as are long chapters that outline well-worn arguments in favor of decriminalizing drugs and prostitution, though these are solid recommendations, commendable in spirit coming from an ex-cop. Similarly, though it’s refreshing to hear a former police chief take on the all-powerful police unions, the book could have done without nearly 100 pages of tiresome ax grinding.

Where Breaking Rank shines is when Stamper simply revels in anecdotes from his nearly three decades as a cop. He is a surprisingly adept storyteller, and there’s plenty of good raw material to work with. The book’s finest moment is a riveting account of a 1972 incident in which the young Stamper pursues a father who has kidnapped and is threatening to kill his young son. Stamper catches the man in a gas station parking lot and eventually shoots and kills him point-blank in front of the child. The man turns out to be unarmed, and for his entire adult life the event will gnaw at Stamper.

Twenty-five years later, San Diego police apprehend a man on a bridge threatening to jump. The man has just beaten up his ex-girlfriend, and he’s holding a picture of his two-year-old daughter. On the way to the mental health facility, the man blames his problems on the cop who wrongly killed his father in front of him in a gas station parking lot a quarter century earlier. Eerily, the child Stamper once tried to save has become part of the same endless cycle of violence that led Stamper to become a cop. When he abandons polemic and explores the contradictions between his beliefs and his work, Stamper comes up with irreducible nuggets like these that have the hard, true ring of literature.

Another fascinating yet creepy anecdote explores how Stamper’s law enforcement career became interwoven early on with protest movements like the one that would bring about his downfall. During the Vietnam era, young Stamper, already sympathetic to the antiwar movement and gaining a reputation on the force as a bit of a reformist troublemaker, gets picked by a right-wing, older captain for a new assignment: infiltrating and spying on San Diego’s radical antiwar left. Stamper says now that he was disgusted and knew spying on nonviolent citizens was wrong. But, always the psychologist, he says he took the assignment in an effort to gain approval from his fatherlike ranking officer. In the year that follows, young Stamper severs ties with his fellow officers, grows his hair out, and starts writing antiwar news stories for underground radical papers in the area under an assumed name while spying on the movement.

If this were a novel instead of a biography, it might be more richly satisfying to consider the ironies within ironies here, to savor the protesters’ ultimate victory over Stamper in Seattle’s streets or even to turn the psychology around on Stamper. Which side was he really on and when? Was Stamper’s failure of resolve in the Battle of Seattle a sign that the protester inside had finally defeated the cop? Is the book one long plea for approval, now addressed to the protesters instead of the right-wing captain?

But the anecdote also illustrates how irritatingly self-serving much of this memoir is. Throughout the book, Stamper rushes to heap negative diagnoses on himself before the reader can, calling himself at various times racist, sexist, and an abuser for attitudes he held, while refusing to own up to the harm he may have done. Instead of coming clean with an honest appraisal of how police spying and the information he provided may have damaged and undermined the legitimate work — and the lives — of nonviolent peace workers in the San Diego activist community, Stamper chooses to play much of this episode for laughs. He highlights a puffed-up, trivial incident in which he gets a tip (which later proves false) that there might be an assassination attempt from within the movement on Angela Davis, then a professor at UC San Diego. Stamper smirks at the irony of police secretly defending the lives of the people they’re spying on and spins a yarn about how all the other undercovers he enlists to guard her are too square to fit in with the radicals.

In the chapter “Snookered in Seattle,” Stamper similarly fails to offer any insights into the decision making that led to the Seattle PD’s attacks on nonviolent protesters. Who gave the orders and, if it was Stamper, why? On publicity tours forBreaking Rank, Stamper has said of the WTO violence, “We [the SPD] started it on Tuesday morning when we started to gas nonviolent demonstrators,” but nowhere in the book does he claim responsibility, as chief, for this decision. Instead he credits an unnamed “field commander” and says there simply weren’t enough police to arrest the protesters.

Progressive media like Utne Reader and In These Times rushed to praise Breaking Rank‘s call for drug decriminalization when the book first came out, and the ironic result is that the man who oversaw the beating and gassing of nonviolent protesters in Seattle may become a progressive hero.

Still, these contradictions are what make Breaking Rank compelling. Stamper could be the main character in a novel of our times, a man who wants to do good but is complicit in the brutality of the state. If followed, Stamper’s sound recommendations for community policing and abandoning the drug war might make this a better world. His struggle to reconcile unreconcilable forces within himself, though, makes better reading. SFBG


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