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Breaking Rank – Review

by: Stamper, Norm

Publisher: Nation Books

Copyright: 2005

Cover: Maria E. Torres

Type: Hardcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 11/28/2005

Summary: Excellent discourse on law enforcement. Also see review for Paul LaRosa’s TACOMA CONFIDENTIAL.

During the week of October 31, 2005, France experienced some of the worst riots it has had since the 1960s. As the French are wont to do, they will designate this riotous period in history with some descriptive name signifying the uniqueness and import of French “civilization”. In fact, they already have. Buried beneath the title, barely registering as a detail, will be the fact that the French abandoned the concept of “community policing” and went back to a bureaucratic, centralized administration system of policing about a year before the riots started. Is that detail important?

Norm Stamper is the former Police Chief of the Seattle Police Department. He spent thirty-four years of his life as a policeman on the West Coast-first in San Diego, California and then in Seattle, Washington. You get drawn into this book from the opening pages. Stamper gives us an open letter to Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, who shot and killed his wife on April 26, 2003. Brame then killed himself. As you begin to read Stamper’s open letter, it is exactly what you would expect. It is a textbook example on domestic violence counseling. But gradually, the sixteen page letter becomes a personal statement. You quickly realize that whatever direction Stamper goes from this point in the book, there is no turning back. He doesn’t. BREAKING RANK is about people. The people are men and women who elect to wear a uniform and serve as law enforcers.

There is a degree of honesty and frankness here you are unlikely to find in other works by high level law enforcement officials. If nothing else, BREAKING RANK sketches the boundaries of responsibility-responsibility for your own actions and responsibility for what you contribute to community, and what you leave as a legacy for others. The message is very subtle, but persistent. Stamper achieves a rare equilibrium between self-criticism and self-promotion. It is one reason you keep reading. Despite the extensive detours into sweeping recommendations on how to run a police department-a subject which may or may not be of primary interest-BREAKING RANK presents policing, and the men and women who do the job, within the context of being people.

A lot of what Stamper says is controversial. Legalized prostitution and decriminalization of drug use does not go over big with law-makers or law enforcers. He also raises both sides of some issues which may not go over well with anyone. In Chapter 13, titled “The Police Image: Sometimes a Gun is Just a Gun”, he boils the issue of police community relations down to PR (public relations) policing versus law enforcement policing. He maintains that it was the PR policing policies of the “new ‘professional class’”in federal law enforcement agencies which contributed to September 11, 2001. The point he makes, rather obliquely but legitimately, is that law enforcement is about enforcing the law, not walking the middle-line of relating to the pubic.

He drives the point home later in Chapter 21, titled “A Dark Take on Financial Liability”. He posits the supposition that if Rodney King had been “immediately shot dead by a bullet from a police service weapon” upon exiting his car instead of being video taped by George

Holliday, there would not have been a Los Angeles riot and all the other fallout. This “what if” scenario rings chillingly true. But Stamper flushes out the alternative sequence of events to demonstrate the “pecuniary” versus moral divide in law enforcement. His discussion of money and law enforcement is one of the best in the book.

This book is a break from the customary self-serving “I was law enforcement” volumes making it into print. Stamper does not blame “the suits” for his shortcomings as a cop, nor does he extol his exploits as examples of heroic, legendary deeds. After all, he became one of the “suits” and he made it to retirement apparently pretty much whole. He keeps the focus on the humanity of the job-from “Demilitarizing the Police” to “Up with Labor (Not so Fast, Police Unions)”. BREAKING RANK is definitely worth reading.

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