San Diego The 1999 World Trade Organization riots occurred on Norm Stamper's watch as chief of police in Seattle (he retired in 2000). But the homicide he writes "I committed" was the most traumatic event in his 38 years of law enforcement. It took place in North Park in 1972, when Stamper was a young lieutenant on the San Diego Police force. The suspect he was chasing on foot jumped into the parked car where a ten-year-old boy was waiting in the passenger's seat. The boy was the fugitive's son. The man's wife told police moments earlier she thought he had a gun.
Stamper describes the scene in his new book Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing. In the next instant, writes Stamper, the man he had been chasing "grabs something from his waistband and, shielded from my view, jabs it hard and fast against Joey's head, then screams in an inhuman voice, 'I'm gonna kill him!' He convinces me. I stick my gun into the car, point it at the back of his head, level the barrel so the slug won't follow a downward path, and pull the trigger."
I am listening to Stamper relive the event after his speech to San Diego's City Club at the Holiday Inn on Harbor Drive. He tells me that as soon as the shooting was over, he "went into denial" and years later would have to seek psychological counseling to deal with its emotional scars. Moments after dragging the fugitive from his car and comforting the blood-and-brain-splattered boy, he watched in awe, "marveling in a semi-detached way at the professionalism" of a San Diego Police homicide unit taking charge of the scene. "The officers took both of our guns and separated me from my partner," he says. "They wouldn't let us talk to each other." They also never found the dead man's gun.
A peculiar passage in Breaking Rank makes me question Stamper about what he intended to describe next. "That means I succeeded," he says, "because I do not want to accuse [the detective] of something I only imagine was happening." The detective approached him with a measuring tape that had a black-handled screwdriver stuck into it. He said to Stamper, "Look at it, sir. Anybody'd mistake this sucker for a gun. It was on the floor, right there where you pulled the body out."
Stamper writes that he replied, "I didn't see it." Several sentences earlier, the passage calls the detective's action "an invention of [his] creativity and a product of his fealty to the brotherhood."
I ask Stamper how often he thinks "fealty to the brotherhood" in the homicide investigation lessens repercussions for cops who kill people on the streets. "One issue here is the integrity of the investigation, the facts," he says. "Sometimes it's ambiguous, but with good investigation you can usually say, what happened?' Then arises the question, 'Was the officer justified?' The answer to that is almost always 'Yes.' If I think somebody's going for a gun and I shoot him and, in fact, it's a wallet, does that make what I observed any less true for me now that we know it was a wallet? So it's relatively easy to find a shooting (by a cop) justified.
"That being said, I have major heartburn over the Diallo shooting," says Stamper. In New York City in 1999, four cops fired 41 shots at Guinean Amadou Diallo after he reached in his jacket for something that turned out not to be a gun. Nineteen shots hit Diallo, and he died at the scene. The criminal case and the various administrative reviews "concluded that the shooting was clean," according to Stamper. "To me, the larger issue is, would those four cops have shot a white guy doing the same thing? I don't think so. And at a deeper level, I believe that [such acts] are traceable to fear. As a generalization, white cops are afraid of black men, and the larger and darker the black man, the more likely it is that they're going to behave impulsively, angrily, covering up their fear. I can't shake and tremble in your presence if you're a big, menacing-looking black man. I have to handle you, manage the situation."
But Stamper speaks differently of special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team snipers. "I've seen their training," he tells me, "and I [am amazed] by their fearlessness and calmness."
Breaking Rank draws on incidents Stamper experienced or witnessed in both Seattle and San Diego. But it does not mention the July 18, 1984, McDonald's massacre in San Ysidro, which ended when a SWAT team sniper, Charles Foster, from a nearby rooftop, shot Oliver Huberty in the chest, killing him instantly.
Huberty had been grousing about Mexicans taking jobs at the time he went into the McDonald's restaurant and shot 21 people dead. Most of those killed were of Mexican descent. Twelve days afterward, the San Diego Union reported that two survivors of the shooting, Ronald Herrera and Albert Reos (through his mother), were criticizing police for how long it took them to respond to the tragedy. But, according to the story, "Six hours after Huberty was shot, San Diego police [commander] Larry Gore told reporters that Huberty 'shot all the people the moment he went in in the first five minutes.' For the remainder of the siege Huberty shot at inanimate objects, at police outside, and into the street, Gore said." Herrera and Reos, however, maintained that Huberty was still shooting victims 40 to 45 minutes into the ordeal.
Lieutenant Jerry Sanders, who later became San Diego's police chief and is now running for mayor in the upcoming special election, was the SWAT team commander at the time. According to a July 22, 1984, story in the Union, "He quickly hopped into his squad car and headed for the scene. While en route a message came in on his radio: 'The green light is on.' The order had been issued to kill Huberty. Sanders pressed his transmitter button, countermanding the order. 'This is the SWAT commander. That's a negative on the green light. There's a red light' -- no firing permitted -- 'unless he leaves the building."
Sanders arrived at the San Ysidro McDonald's eight minutes later and, four minutes after that, he ordered the shot that killed Huberty. In the following days, according to stories in both the San Diego Union and the Evening Tribune, Sanders explained his decision several different ways. A full SWAT team was not yet in place at the time the first green light was ordered, he told reporters. And the team members who first arrived on the scene could not get a clear sighting of Huberty inside the restaurant.
Rumors had it that Sanders had been socializing with fellow officers when he received the first call about the massacre unfolding. I ask Stamper what he remembers. "He was at Marina Village," says Stamper, who in 1992 was bypassed in favor of Sanders for the San Diego police chief job. "I was there, too, along with all the other command staff members. We had had a retreat. I can't remember what the subject was, but it was a full work day, not something social. At the end, it converted to social. There were a few people hanging around, though some had left, and that was the point at which the call to Jerry came in."
But the July 22 Union story stated, "SWAT commander Lt. Jerry Sanders, 34, was sipping a beer at the Salmon House in Marina Village, attending a birthday party [for a] fellow commander. About 25 minutes after the first call went out for SWAT help, Sanders was approached by deputy chief Norm Stamper, who just got off the phone. 'Have you been beeped yet?' "
Four days later the Tribune reported that Sanders "said he is still trying to determine why his pager failed to work."
Stamper is circumspect about the decision Sanders made after leaving Marina Village to countermand the first green light to shoot Huberty. Stamper does acknowledge that it was discussed in the police debriefing of the San Ysidro massacre. "At what point," he says to me, "does somebody who is not at the scene relinquish authority over to people who are there already? Today, that is still a debate in law-enforcement tactics and strategy deliberations. You're talking about the red light/green light concept in SWAT. I don't know if that's the exact terminology anymore. But the message is, if you've got a green light, as soon as you have a good head shot, take it. That's what you use snipers for. But if someone you love dearly is being held in a headlock by a hostage taker, a gun to her or his head, being dragged around, and you've got a SWAT sniper 50 yards, 100 yards away, the question is: Would you entrust that professional to take the shot?"
"I'm not going to second-guess Jerry Sanders's decision on that," Stamper continues. "It's a very tough call. My bias and preference would be that those people who are on the scene, assuming that they have been well selected and well trained, should be making the majority of the decisions. But there are times and places where that's not the appropriate way to go. So I don't know."