Calling all Norms

Which chief is retiring—or is it resigning?

"We are not going to tolerate violence." —Police chief nominee Norman Stamper, November 30, 1993

"We made a calculated decision to keep the city as safe as we possibly could."—Chief Stamper, November 30, 1999, admitting his department tolerated violence that tore apart downtown Seattle

YOU'LL HAVE TO TAKE Norm Stamper's word that he's not resigning because of an ongoing departmental scandal or blown security planning for the riotous World Trade Organization meetings—rather, that he's retiring as he's planned to do for months, even though no one seemed to know about it.

Multiple choice is a hallmark of Seattle's 55-year-old top cop: After six years of double vision, do we yet know who the hell he is or was?

He was the perfect chief for a gentle place calling itself the Emerald City. "He's very much in tune with Seattle—just very politically correct," said then-City Council member Jane Noland in 1994.

He was the wrong chief for a city that pundits errantly dub polite—a city with its ample daily share of crime, bloody victims, road rage, and a record-setting heroin death rate. He seemed more in tune with Bellevue.

He was forthright, talking openly about his brutal childhood—beaten at home—and his earlier paramilitary cop years where stripes were earned for racism and gay-bashing.

He was evasive, delegating power to others and avoiding a direct disciplinary role as his department dissolved into a misconduct quagmire.

He was the enthusiastic proponent of kinder, gentler community policing, the success of which has been hailed by local leaders and newspaper editorialists.

He was the hated proponent of community policing, loathed by officers who think it drained crime-response personnel and has now collapsed in failure (the unit's director is resigning, too).

He was affable and liked by citizens, officials, and reporters, including this one, who were impressed by his sincerity about bringing people together.

"He could carry a grudge like you won't believe," says one of his officers. "He was circumspect. He shined you on."

He was a visionary, a contemporary management policy wonk focused on the department's practical and symbolic roles to serve and protect.

He was the hands-off chief of a department where five dozen patrol cars were painted the wrong color and a command directive was issued on how to sit in office chairs without getting hurt.

Now-departed council member Martha Choe's initial impression of Stamper was prescient: "He has the potential to be a star or a bomb—but nothing in between." He seems to have fulfilled both potentials.

The likely bottom line is there's an inside Stamper and an outside Stamper—your view depends on where you stand. And, with his retirement announcement coming just as his employees planned a no-confidence vote, the inside view appears to count most.

Six years ago this week—December 17, 1993, the day Stamper was confirmed—the former San Diego assistant chief hoped he could overcome the challenge he faced as an SPD outsider. "The rank and file represents the hopes of the organization," he said. He promised to spend time with his new troops, "riding with them, listening to them, and respecting their opinions."

Arguably, a little late, he got their message.

 
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