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San Diego Police: Is There A Pattern Of Misconduct?

San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne addresses the media on May 10, 2011. Lansdowne was announcing a new plan meant to prevent officer misconduct.
Katie Orr
San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne addresses the media on May 10, 2011. Lansdowne was announcing a new plan meant to prevent officer misconduct.
San Diego Police: Is There A Pattern Of Misconduct?
We'll speak to former San Diego Police Department official Norm Stamper about the recent rash of police misconduct charges. Why do you think are the reasons behind the recent misconduct accusations against SDPD officers? Have you had a bad experience with a police officer?

The recent incidents of alleged misconduct within the ranks of the San Diego police department have led to a new seven point plan for the department. The new guidelines are aimed at identifying troubled police officers early on and giving a higher priority to citizen complaints.

That may all sound very familiar to Norm Stamper, a 28-year-veteran of the SDPD and former police chief of the Seattle Police Department. Chief Stamper has a reputation for straight talk about the pressures of police work and how to combat corruption. He started the now disbanded SDPD anti-corruption unit.



Norm Stamper is a 28-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department and former Chief of Police in Seattle. He is the author of the book "Breaking Rank," about policing in America today.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

The recent incidence of alleged misconduct within the ranks of the San Diego Police Department have led to a new Seven-Point Plan for the department. The new guidelines are aimed at identifying troubled police officers early on and giving a higher priority to citizen complaints. That may all sound familiar to my guest Norm Stamper, a 20 year veteran of the SDPD and former police chief of Seattle. Chief Stamper has a reputation for straight talk about the pressures of police work and how to combat corruption. He started the now disbanded SDPD anticorruption unit. He is the author of the book Breaking Rank about policing in America today and it is a pleasure to welcome Norm Stamper to These Days. Good morning.


NORM STAMPER: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Why do you think, what are the reasons you think behind the recent misconduct accusations against SDPD officers? If you'd like to join our conversation with questions and comments the number is 1-888-895-5727. Chief Stamper what is your take on reports of misconduct in the San Diego Police Department?

NORM STAMPER: Well my initial reaction of course, the one that I still feel very strongly is that this has been very damaging to the reputation of a very fine police department. You cannot have in the course of a relatively short period of time allegations of misconduct in roughly 10 cases. And these are very serious allegations. So I think the police chief's press conference, his seven-point plan I think they all speak to that issue but there is no question about what the department has been damaged. By the behavior of these individuals.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you see this as an unfortunate coincidence, or should we look for a pattern here?

NORM STAMPER: My attitude is if you have more than two pieces of anything, check for the pattern. In the book I make a distinction between patterns and trends but we don't need to get into that. I think the important thing is to whether what's been happening is it a novelty or whether it is sufficiently patterned to suggest that there are systemic problems. And without digging deeper into these particular cases I personally can't enter answer this questions from my distance away.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I guess my question why might this be happening now, I guess is something you can't answer but let me throw out the idea that the police department has been cut back because of the recession and could that possibly put more pressure on the officers that remain?

NORM STAMPER: I once called the San Diego Police Department or the city of San Diego dangerously under-policed. That was my opinion when I was still a member of the department. It remains my opinion. You've got a 400 mi.² city. Urban density. All of the problems that we associate with big cities and a very small Police Department to police it. It does appear that the situation is if anything worse than when I left way back in 1994. And a number of other reasons have been offered to help explain what is going on. The economic stress on police officers. I understand a police officer lost their homes as a result of defaulting on their mortgages and the like. That all helps to explain but as chief Lansdowne made it clear the other day, it does not in any way excuse the behavior print there are a lot of people hurting and suffering that I think it would be a serious mistake to lay the blame on the economic hardships or other personal stressors in the lives of police officers. It helps explain, does not excuse.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you run the force has a San Diego police officer, what was your observation of corruption and misconduct within the force?

NORM STAMPER: There was good in my 20 years of experience, of course I joined the police department at a time when the Department of Justice or the Atty. Gen. investigations were still fairly fresh in the minds of people in City Hall and within the Police Department and I think the department at the time committed to making the San Diego squeaky clean. And in fact I believe it has largely been accomplished during that kind of behavior that we are loosely labeling corruption I'm not sure fits that category. Allegations of rape, other sexual assaults, excessive force, those kinds of things suggest serious, serious police misconduct. But corruption suggests people engaged in embezzlement and participating in criminal behavior on the job for personal gain. The Los Angeles police department there too for considered one of the cleanest in the country found itself embroiled in a horrible patterned example of corruption during the Rampart scandal. New Orleans Police Department predictably unfortunately year after year is exposed as a department that has deep-seated corruption. I think it can also be said of the Chicago Police Department. I don't believe that it can be said of the San Diego Police Department.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Given what you have just said you think of San Diego police still add an anticorruption unit like the one that you sounded when you were here that might've had any kind of impact on the kind of misconduct that we are seeing now?

NORM STAMPER: If you let me be theoretical and would say yes, absolutely. We been characterized by the way as an anticorruption unit. It was a professional standards unit. I had done an audit of the department given my recommendations to then chief program, who embraced the idea that her command staff and ultimately to most people surprised the rank and file officers thought that the creation of a unit, not internal affairs, not inspection and control, these are two units that we had whose job was basically to keep an eye on internal accountability, but one was investigative, and the other was more of a systematic inquiry in which the scope and nature of the inspection would actually be announced two units in advance. PSU, the professional standards unit on the other hand had a small group of really competent and you know, ethical police officers whose job was to proactively investigate suspicion of misconduct. Such that if we heard for example that a beat cop or a narcotics officer was talking contraband, converting it to his or her own use, if we had allegations that police officers on the beat were trading liberty for sex, particularly in dealing with a prostitution problem in various parts of the city, we would actually set them up and we make no apologies for saying in advance that that could happen to you in this police department. And I think it had a very sizable and positive effect on the culture of the department.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking of veteran SDPD official and former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper and we are inviting you to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. Wally is on the line from Rancho Bernardo. Good morning, Wally. Welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I was just wondering if perhaps some of these incidents might have to do with having a district attorney that tends to look the other way, or having a friend in the District Attorney's Office and have some of those shootings of the last few years might be looked into again. You know, where it seemed the Police Department had to shoot first and ask questions later. There were a number of situations where Bonnie Dumanis has said that the shootings were authorized. Could there be some sort of investigation into those just to make sure that there weren't some bad eggs involved in that?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you,Wally. Chief Stamper?

NORM STAMPER: In general I believe that district attorneys across the country are acceptably timid and very reluctant to charge police officers and circumstance or is that in my judgment would warrant charges. I cannot speak to any single instance in San Diego because I do not know the facts or the circumstances so I wouldn't pretend to judge by the commanders or for that matter the several district attorney's in San Diego but I do believe that whether or not you've got a prosecuting authority that is lax or extra tough, or at any point in the continuum can easily be scapegoated. In other words the on-duty as well as off-duty conduct of police officers should not in any way be contingent on what I would call the politics of prosecution. Police officers at all levels, from the chief to the newest recruit have standards of behavior. They have got a code of ethics that is intended to guide and ultimately control the behavior of the police. So I think it is just too easy to start looking for excuses rather than explanations.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Norm Stamper you have been rather frank when it comes to talking about the temptations and policework. In fact I believe they said that the policeman sometimes get annoyed at you, mad at you because of the things they say and do things that you write. Why do you feel that it's important to speak about that?

NORM STAMPER: Well it certainly is true that throughout most of my career in San Diego and the following me into Seattle I think was a reputation for being outspoken and the police officers did not object to outspokenness so long as the company line is followed. I think that the structure of law enforcement needs a lot of attention because it produces the culture. The culture that gives rise to the behavior and not to get too sociological here, I think it is just vital that the police chiefs and others who really care about effectiveness and efficiency on the conduct of employees be constantly looking at systems, policies, practices. If they cannot be defended, then they need to be eliminated or substantially modified. That is just a bias I think I've brought to my work and it has won me some friends and probably more enemies.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is there enough training given to the pleas from the Academy on down or up depending on which way you want to look at it in the temptations of policework?

NORM STAMPER: I think the short answer is no. I used to work for a guy, Bert Green, I was his number two guy and he said I'm going to approve every training that is recommended to me until I hear howls of protest. In other words I believe, I think it's also true of Bill Calder, Jerry Sanders and Dave (inaudible), and I daresay Bill Lansdowne as well that we are all believers in providing as much as of the finest quality training that we can provide great and I think when it comes to the issues of ethics it is a really tough nut to crack. You are talking to mostly police officers who got a strong moral compass. They have not got a character challenge, they would not succumb to the temptations of the type for example that professional standards unit might put in their paths, and so to in effect herd them into a classroom and have ethics 1A done to them is for many of them difficult because because they tend to get insulted and bored and they tend to believe that is not relevant. So it's almost like keeping the whole class after school for the misbehavior of the one or two members of the class. I do believe having said that we can become much more imaginative in the kind of training that we provide. We can become more, to use a term of art, experiential in designing a curriculum for ethics and integrity. Such that it doesn't insult or otherwise bore people who say I already know this because how I conduct myself day in and day out anyway.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering. I hear from you that you do not want to be a Monday morning quarterback when it comes to the problems that we are encountering here in San Diego with this rash of police officers with misconduct allegations, but you have looked over chief Lansdowne seven-point plan. Do you agree with it and is there anything that you would suggest?

NORM STAMPER: There's nothing per se but I think you have it then city, and a police chief who in my judgment is easily the hardest working police chief in the country. And certainly one of the most caring and so I have a great deal of respect for him I think he's done a terrific job. I think the seven-point plan is good and solid. I think any early warning system that is effective is very powerful stuff. I do believe that if perhaps it could've been and maybe should have been an eight point plan so that you see reinstitution of this capacity within the police department as part of the job description of a half-dozen people that you would assign to this task to actually go in to see, I hate to cliche, but to see if there is fire behind the smoke. Anytime you get suspicions that there is a police officer misbehaving but you don't have cause to open an investigation you go out and put yourself in the police officer's path, dangle the temptation and see what happens. You're not planting criminals seeds, it is not entrapment, what you are doing and what we did with professional standards for a number of years was very systematically look at the challenges of the integrity and into the ethical conduct of the officers and surprisingly I think I mentioned this earlier, the officers bought it. They supported it. That is one of the proudest moments that I can remember in my times in SDPD. That we don't want to be working along corrupt cops, we don't want to be working along a sex offender. We like to feel that we are working for America's finest

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Norm Stamper who is the author of the book Breaking Rank. Thank you.

NORM STAMPER: It's my pleasure, thank you.