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Norm Stamper now spends most of his days in a cedar cabin, tucked away on an island in the thick of Washington’s wilderness: deer, raccoons and four different kinds of owls. His morning commute to an adjacent writing studio, he boasts, takes just 2.3 seconds.
Retirement has provided a lifestyle starkly contrasted to his 28 years on San Diego’s police force and six years as Seattle’s police chief. One of San Diego’s most outspoken advocates for uniting the community and police efforts lives in solitude.
But that’s not to say Stamper remains quiet. His 2005 book, Breaking Rank, boiled the blood of cops in San Diego and Seattle. It reminisced on touchy subjects like racism, sexism, spying on suspected communists and police shootings.
He’s frequently interviewed as outspoken advocate for legalizing marijuana and he occasionally writes for the Huffington Post. In some articles, he uses anecdotes from San Diego to argue for changing policies.
Stamper was born and raised in San Diego, and spent most of his law enforcement career here. But these days, he’s viewed more like an outsider. The first time I asked a San Diego police officer about Stamper, the cop simply described him as a “man with ideas” and rolled his eyes.
Last week, I called Stamper to see how retirement is treating him. We focused the conversation on San Diego since other media have tackled his time in Seattle and especially the World Trade Organization riots in 1999, which happened on his watch.
We talked about his advocacy for legalizing marijuana, his influence among San Diego police and his reflections on being passed over for San Diego’s police chief in favor of Jerry Sanders.
You’ve been out of San Diego’s radar for a while. What do you consider the main item on your agenda?
I would say in the last four years, it has definitely been drug policy. I’m absolutely persuaded that the drug war has caused far more harm than good. Our drug laws are predicated on the organizing mechanism of prohibition. There is no way that it can work. We tried that before — 1920 to 1933 — we learned that prohibition simply does not work, cannot work, never will work and what it does, of course, is breed crime and violence and for that matter, death and disease.
I’m an advocate of replacing the prohibition model with a regulatory model. And I think people are completely absorbed these days by California’s initiative that would legalize marijuana. Tax it. Control it. Regulate it.
Did your time in San Diego grow a passion for changing drug policy?
I spent the first 28 years of my career in San Diego. I saw the many, many harms that are caused by current drug policy. Over the course of my career, we had several officers fall on narcotics charges; you know the temptation, the lure of easy and accessible drugs, and/or money, cannot be denied. It’s a multibillion dollar industry globally. That represents a tremendous seduction for character-challenged police officers.
Do you consider yourself involved with San Diego politics or its policing efforts?
No, not really at all. Only in the most indirect way (by speaking to classes, business groups or media).
Is there anyone in the Police Department that you still stay in contact with?
Frankly, at this stage, it’s mostly retired. You’ve got chiefs now that I couldn’t name, and certainly captains, lieutenants and sergeants who were not members of the department when I was there.
You were pitched against Jerry Sanders for police chief in 1993 and lost. Is that how you would describe what happened?
Well, I was (in the running). I expected it and was disappointed, to put it mildly, when I didn’t get it. So yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I was led to believe that I was going to get the job, so I was shocked and hurt when I didn’t.
Have you ever reflected on how SDPD might look different today had you been selected rather than Jerry Sanders?
(Once) I took the job in Seattle, my thoughts about what it might have been like in San Diego had I been chief, were just fleeting.
I really do believe that Sanders did many of things that I would have done, and I do know that he had much greater popularity with the rank and file than I ever had. It would appear he’s lost some of that lately, but I don’t know.
Why didn’t you stay with the department and continue with him?
I wanted to be a police chief. I really wanted San Diego. It was my hometown, I was born and raised there — but I will confess that there are aspects of life in Southern California that never really captured my imagination and part of it frankly is sunshine. I like seasons. I actually like cold, wet, windy, snowy weather. And last year, I was snowed in at my cabin for 12 days. But I still loved it.
Part of that (the move) for me is kind of a cultural thing as well. San Diego is a sprawling city and at the time that I left it, I never did have the sense that there was this real, true neighborhood identity from one part of that sprawling city to the next. I still love it, I still have dear friends and family there, and I enjoy my trips, but for me now, it’s a nice place to visit.
Do you find it ironic that a champion of community relations now lives in the woods?
When I retired, I had spent my adult life, 34 years, living in a big city around city noise. And I had adapted completely. Noise did not bother me.
And then I started writing the day after I retired, and my God! The noise was unbelievable! I mean, the sirens, the car alarms, the occasional fight in the street — you name it. It was loud, it was noisy. I found myself wearing earphones just to cancel out as much of the noise as I could.
But yes, I was looking for solitude. I was not looking for isolation, so one of the things that I attempted to balance when I moved was some place that would give me peace and quiet, but not so much isolation that I couldn’t shop, dine out or rent a movie. So that’s what I chose to do and I haven’t regretted a second of it.
Do you ever see yourself coming back to law enforcement?
No. No. I am peripherally or tangentially involved in that field, but I’m 66 years old and I spent 34 years in that business, and I think that’s enough, on both fronts.
What do you think will be your legacy? What will come to mind when people mention the name Norm Stamper?
Well, apart from the labels I collected, which are short-hand for some truths: New breed advocate of radical change, leader of a burgeoning police reform movement and then some terms that are not printable.
Because I truly did, without any intention to do so, piss off a whole lot of my former colleagues when I talked about my own behavior in San Diego back in 1966 (his rookie year) that caused a number of San Diego cops to go ballistic and write letters. It is the truth, it was certainly my truth about my experiences. I’m not proud of them, in fact I’m ashamed of them, but I think it’s a huge mistake to ignore our history, whether it’s individual or institutional. So the idea is to learn as much from that as possible.
In any event, there are two things in both cities, and they are community policing and domestic violence. That’s my hope at any rate.
Anything else that you wanted to emphasize?
I do side with police officers who say that [San Diego] is under-policed. By national standards, it’s a tiny police department.
— Interview conducted and edited by KEEGAN KYLE