To Protect and to Serve: How To Fix America’s Police

Author: Norm Stamper
Publisher: New York: Nations Books, 2016. 294p.
Reviewer: Robert Costello | July 2017

Once I settled into the opening pages, I soon realized Norm Stamper’s talent for writing. But his talent for writing is really a byproduct of his passion for policing in America, which began in 1966 as a police officer in San Diego, and concluded in Seattle where he served as Chief of Police for six years until his resignation in 2000.

Even though Stamper has a doctorate in Leadership and Psychology, he is not interested in the psychology of police officers. Rather, this work utilizes an organizational approach designed to discover why young officers, with the best of intentions to protect and serve, are changed or co-opted by the police culture. Ultimately, Stamper proposes a new “community-driven system of policing” where “calm, disciplined professional officers are the norm who work in full partnership with the citizenry” (xx).

Even given the number and diversity of police departments in America, Stamper correctly highlights many universal problems in their operations and in the police culture. Jurisdictions across this country are experiencing severe budgetary problems, and too many are relying on their police departments to generate revenue to close financial gaps. This practice was prominently highlighted in the US Department of Justice report pertaining to the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department (the site of the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014). Stamper explains that “policing for-profit” devalues an officer’s self-concept, making him or her into a “hunter,” and thus dehumanizing the public. A natural result is a gulf of distrust between the public and police; a gap that never decreases, but rather increases exponentially (8).

Another general problem with policing is how officers are evaluated by their supervisors. Police evaluations center on the productivity of the officer. Supervisors typically simply do “activity recaps” by counting the number of citations, arrests, and other quantifiable actions during a period of time. Lacking are assessments that incorporate how officers treat the people behind the statistics. Reaching into his impressive personal history and background, the author explains how “there was zero assessment of the quality of my relations with the citizens I’d been hired to protect and serve” (3).

Stamper uses the last few chapters to establish his intriguing plan to establish a “community driven system of policing” that eviscerates the old model of police, whereby they “tell the community what’s best for the community, and to announce its unilateral intentions. That is not community policing” (252). Instead, he calls for a system reflective of a representative democracy in which citizens are elected to serve as unpaid members of police boards that would then significantly impact police operations, such as policy making, program development, crisis management, and hiring and promotion panels (255). In addition, the US Department of Justice would assume a larger presence in policing in order to create universal standards amongst the 18,000 police departments in America. This latter is a quite controversial recommendation, as it runs counter to the notion of local control and home rule.

Stamper’s valuable voice is equal parts seasoned law enforcement executive and concerned citizen, who offers a refreshing perspective on identifying the ills plaguing American policing along with a dramatic proposal to fix them. His book is meticulously cited, and written in an open and engaging manner accessible to the general public.

Robert Costello is Professor & Chair of the Criminal Justice Department at SUNY Nassau Community College and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Hofstra University.

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