Former Seattle police Chief Norm Stamper told a Spokane crowd Thursday that he wasn’t knowledgeable enough about the city’s most infamous case of recent police misconduct to offer much meaningful commentary on it.
But he said he understood the Otto Zehm case enough to know that police officers who saluted Karl F. Thompson Jr., the officer convicted last year for using excessive force against Zehm, were insulting to Zehm’s family.
“From where I sit, it was a slap in the face of the community,” Stamper said. “It was a tone-deaf gesture that rubbed a lot of salt in a lot of wounds.”
Stamper, who served as Seattle’s police chief from 1994 until 2000, spoke about police reform, the use of force, police oversight and drug policy Thursday night at the Bing Crosby Theater. Most of the evening, he spoke in response to questions from three panelists. His discussion of the controversial courtroom salute of Thompson was in response to a question from Spokane Police Guild President Ernie Wuthrich, who asked Stamper for his advice on moving forward positively after controversial police action.
Stamper praised Wuthrich for being at the event and advised him to remain active in community dialogue.
“As a community, what would be healing? What would be persuasive as to future steps?” Stamper said. “To be an active and engaged participant in representing the rank and file, that strikes me as incredibly valuable.”
He recommended that police leaders fire officers they believe should be terminated even if a city attorney believes the department is likely to be forced to rehire the officer.
“So you get overturned – at least you did the right thing,” Stamper said.
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart asked Stamper how to prevent improper force in the face of budget cuts that mean fewer cops on duty.
Stamper said a lack of cops can make officers more fearful because help from other officers is farther away. And, he said, most cases of improper police force result from fear.
“If you don’t have enough cops, find a way to get them,” he said in a message directed to elected leaders. “But also provide the kind of training to your police officers that allows them to confront their own fears.”
Stamper said the goal is for departments to work closely with the community to restore trust.
“It’s important that police officers recognize that they are a part of and not apart from the communities they serve,” he said. “It will make their jobs so much more enjoyable, satisfying and safer.”