Linn County, Iowa resident Rick Stewart is running for the position of sheriff under a campaign to end the disastrous war on drugs and change the way policing is done; and I recently spoke to him in length about it.
There is always a contingent of Cop Block critics who challenge us to becomes cops and change the system from within. I have outright denied the feasibility of this method on numerous occasions. A few weeks ago when I heard about Stewart’s campaign for sheriff in an adjacent county to where I live via the above video, I reached out for an interview, primed with the same skepticism as before. Rick was kind enough to invite me to meet in his home a few nights later.
I offered to prepare a list of questions so he could think on his responses beforehand, but his reply to the offer was another clue to his charisma and character…
“I don’t want questions ahead of time for a very simple reason. Every interview, or every voter I talk to, is a test. If I want to do well on the test I need to prepare for every question that could possibly be asked. This puts a lot of pressure on me (self imposed), and I push myself harder.”
At first you might think that much of what Rick says sounds either too simple, or too difficult, to practically achieve. Which was also my starting prognosis. But what seemed practically impossible on its own becomes easily imagined under the force of his personality. It is because he has the qualities of a leader, and not the mindless herder mentality of bureaucrats and administrators shared by so many of our pompous elected officials, that makes his ideas seem practically applicable. His enthusiasm, passion and genuine interest in other peoples ideas and lives give him a unique ability to reach people in his community at the most fundamental level and create a vibrant example for the rest of the world.
I pulled up to his house as scheduled. It was easy to tell it was his house, because the Johnson/Weld and Libertarian Party signs were all but blocking the entrance. Rick is a Libertarian, and aside from being a Gary Johnson supporter in the last two elections, he also led a campaign in Washington DC to get third party candidates into the presidential debates. From this experience he learned a lot of the skills he needed to run his own campaign, budgeted strictly on almost entirely his own dime.
Through the glass door, as I knocked, I could see Rick reading on the couch and hear the Willie Nelson playing in his home. In a Johnson/Weld t-shirt and jeans held up with a Grateful Dead belt he greeted me and invited me in and we jumped right into a conversation that lasted over four hours. A half hour in I set up cameras while he told me stories about some of the officer misdeeds he witnessed during his own time as a police officer in the early 70’s. That is where the following 2 hour video begins.
I had planned to cut the video down into smaller segments. However no matter what approach I explored, there was no way to distill it all down into a shorter length video without losing the larger points. So instead I will discuss some of the larger points here, and if you are interested, you will definitely want to take the time to watch the full discussion.
After finishing college and living the hippie lifestyle, Rick settled down and became a police officer at the age of 21. The job required taking the Iowa Civil Service entrance exams, on which Rick scored higher than anyone in the state had before, which led the University of Iowa test administrator to recommend he not be hired as an officer. The chief, who Rick thought highly of, ignored that and hired him anyway.
This was in 1971, at the dawn of the drug war. However Rick says it had not yet begun to really affect how he or his department operated. In fact he had initially admitted to the chief that he had used marijuana, which did not cause any concern whatsoever. In contrast to his experience at that time, he has gained a huge perspective on how the war on drugs changed everything.
After two years working as a police officer without any real issues, a new mayor was elected who told that chief that Rick must shave his short, well-trimmed beard or resign.
“That’s not how I work.” Rick responded when the chief presented the mayors ultimatum.
“I know.” said the chief.
And so that was the end of that.
Soon after he became interested in communalism, beginning with the simple idea that it would be more efficient for families to share appliances and other resources on a small scale. This experiment grew much faster than he had anticipated and quickly grew into the product family known as Frontier Natural Products, which he acted as CEO of for nearly 20 years before retiring 21 years ago.
It is interesting to note that the incumbent Linn County Sheriff has accused Rick of not having the experience to run an operation the size of that department, since FNP was one and a half times the size of the department. Rick not only has the better experience, but in his role he acted a leader, not just as another name in an endless succession of administrators as represented by the Democrat in office.
When he retired at the age of 48 he went to France and learned to speak French, to Spain to learn Spanish and then studied Chinese in Beijing. After that he returned to America and spent some time back in school, and hiked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. He continues to travel the country and world absorbing knowledge and culture from diverse sources.
From there he found himself in Guatemala, where he eventually got involved in a voluntary charity project that he continues to participate in, even maintaining a residence there. The charity leads tourists to observe volcanoes in exchange for donations, which are then used to maintain an orphanage for 35 kids and a private school serving 175 disadvantaged children.
Four years ago he became interested in politics via the issues involving Gary Johnson and third party candidates being restricted from the presidential debates. He took off to Washington and was couching surfing with a friend who worked as a professional Santa Claus. He fought a good fight, and won some battles, but he didn’t get the desired results. But he did learn.
Two years ago he ran for State Senate as an Independent. He did it on the smallest possible budget, self-funded with no donations taken. To campaign he visited every county in Iowa. He spoke to 200 newspapers, which is basically all of them, he says. Although he did not win, he did come in third of six, with more votes than any independent candidate in state history. And again, he learned a lot.
For instance, he learned that the position of sheriff is the highest law enforcement official in the county. And of the 99 counties, the one he lived in is the second most populous. This he saw as the perfect place to get inside the system. Not only could he affect what he saw as the most dangerous issue in America, the War on Drugs, but he could gain some political power to voice to some of his ideas on a local, state and national level.
He looked Arizona’s sheriff Joe Arpaio and decided to become the reasonable opposition to that sort of ideology. He would use the position not to strengthen his own department and position, but to strengthen his community, and then broadcast the ideas and their results to the rest of the country. So to lay groundwork for that and kick off his campaign, he created five commercials that he ran thirty times a piece in Washington DC during the times and channels his research told him that politicians would be most likely to be watching.
His message is stark and clear. The drug war is a massive failure that has cost taxpayers, ruined lives and destroyed three generations of young black men and their communities. And the politicians supporting the War on Drugs are war criminals.
We discussed other problems with the drug war during which he talks about its massive failure institutionally and morally. He calls it a fifty year losing war that has done more damage than any other conflict in American history. It’s cost, in dollars, lives and opportunities lost is immeasurable, he claims.
“Bans are an infinite tax.”
Rick discusses the parallels to the failed alcohol prohibition laws that caused more problems than they solved. He references the massive success Portugal has had in reducing drug use, overdose and social costs through their decriminalization. There is discussion about how US drug policy and its effect on the international community have led to methamphetamine production in North Korea that funds nuclear weapons; or how it has led to opium trade practices in the middle east that have created and funded extremist groups like the Taliban.
However its most damaging effect, he says, has been how it has changed the face of policing.
“From Mayberry to Stormtroopers.”
And while I disagree that the Mayberry stereotype was ever the truth of policing, as an idea it is at least more charitable than what we have. Which is, at the very least, what Rick wants to achieve. He wants cops to be Andy Griffith types.
“Someone who knows everyone, someone who knows whats going on and someone who solves problems.”
Instead the drug war has became a tool for making arrests. It rewards and incentives police operating as agents who merely make arrests. And drugs give an easy reason to force interactions which may, rightfully or wrongfully, lead to those arrests.
With the arrest-based policing came militarization and the formation of the SWAT team. The effects of this were that police became instruments of escalation, and by using the show of force to make compulsive arrests, eroded trust between themselves and their communities.
With at least 10% of people using drugs, and with those people being closer to likely criminals than the rest of a community, Rick believes they destroyed one of the greatest tools of policing by making people who could help prevent or solve crimes with actual victims decide to remain silent. It is his belief that the way crimes are prevented or solved is to have people who know about but disapprove of a criminal behavior reporting it. But this cannot be done when prohibition alienates good people who so happen to use drugs from participating in community discussions.
Nor can this be expected in the environment of vengeance within policing. People are unlikely to turn someone in if they see that leading to greater harm than the crime itself.
The drug war has created divisions that make it nearly impossible for police to get the necessary information needed to prevent crimes, or to address them in humane ways.
One of the criticisms he receives is his ability to affect this change from within. Detractors claim that he can’t change laws or force others to stop enforcing them, which agrees with. His approach is not to win them over with force, but through reason. Officers do not have to enforce bad laws, that is a choice. This is where his charm, charisma, character, wisdom and personality come into place. He hopes to convince other cops to try things his way, and to see if it doesn’t improve their jobs and their community. And beyond that, to get their input and hear their ideas and to incorporate them into an evolving new design of policing together.
“I have one good idea a day and ninety-nine bad ones, and I can’t tell one from the other.”
On top of this he would work with other local law enforcement officials and departments, creating dialogues of change among them just like in his own department. It is not the laws or the system he hopes to change, but the thought processes and thus the real life interactions they result in.
He says that the current, misguided approach is based on managerialism, professionalism and the broken window method that erroneously states, “If we arrest enough people it will deter crimes here.” Victimless crime enforcement does not deter, Rick believes, but teaches people police are enemies.
Rick discusses how when he was policing, cops used to drive drunks home. The concern was not to make arrests, but to do things which directly prevented anybody becoming a victim, without punitive retribution. And he thinks we should now take the same approach with drug users and deal with potential negative consequences rather than causing them.
The goal should be to make no arrests, and to view an arrest as a failure to prevent a victim by addressing a behavior with reasonable solutions. Every arrest should cause the officer to reflect and strategize for the prevention of the next unfortunate incident.
Rick believes the smart phone should be the most reliable tool of policing, where policing is viewed as communicating problems to be solved. In Linn County there should be about 300 people to each cop, who is networked directly to all of those people, and considers them their responsibility to directly serve and protect. To be someone they can rely upon and trust to have constructive solutions, as well as empathy and understanding. Not merely a professional doing their job.
“Your best friend in good times, your only friend in bad times.”
He believes the neighborhood beat cop should act as a mentor to those most vulnerable to commit a crime, young men. They need guidance and trust and support, not suspicion and labels.
There are very few truly ‘bad guys’, and he estimates there are maybe 22 of them in all of in Linn County. People born to the darkside are incredibly rare, and so the narrative needs to abandon even the term ‘bad guys’. It only serves to create a an ideology inconsistent with reality; one that leads to destructive mentalities.
Vengeance has become the flavor of modern policing, but he says it not only doesn’t work, it creates cycles of despair and criminality. Instead he is interested in the idea of restorative justice, where victims are made whole through some act of reasonable reparations. And where punitive acts are necessary, they should also be applied reasonably and cautiously, with respect to the human that committed the crime and based on justice and reformation rather than retribution.
He discussed how economists had theorized the two factors that influenced the decision to commit a crime were the likelihood of getting caught and length of sentence. However it has since been discovered that as a deterrence factor, sentence severity does not act much as an influence as was once thought.
Our pervading vengeance ideology, culturally and institutionally is mercilessly flawed. Rick thinks that if police officers themselves preached against vengeance, rather than acting gleefully as of a force of it, it could reduce that way of thinking in the public. Although he finds the whole hero worship thing harmful and regrettable, so long as it prevails officers should use it to influence the public towards more productive and humane ideas.
Some of his ideas for how to change his department if he gets elected are:
- Stop using military language and ideas in police departments. Why do we have sergeants?
- Phase out uniforms. Maybe only slowly at first. But uniforms act as a barrier between police and the public, as well as causing a psychological change in those wearing them.
- The gun doesn’t need to be worn all day long. It can stay in the car and comes out only when it is absolutely necessary.
- The same with handcuffs and other utility belt police paraphernalia that send a message of hostility and separation.
- Get rid of the high tech assault vehicles and drive friendlier cars that are always open for those who need a ride.
- Out of the cars and onto the sidewalks and in the community interacting with it. Rick says a friend once suggested that the introduction of air conditioning (heaters?) in cruisers kept officers in their cars longer with the windows rolled up, which further cut off police from their communities.
He makes it clear he is not discussing taking power away from officers, but taking away the ideas of power that separate police from the public. These include hero worship and the superiority that comes with the national fraternization of the thin blue line. He even suggests that perhaps we stop nationalizing officer tragedies, not because they are not tragic, but because the emotional hysteria it creates aids in that separation.
It seemed to me Rick was talking about rebranding the police in such a way as to make them unrecognizable from what we now have. I asked him if we might not be able to go even further and abandon the term ‘police’ and instead just consider having community assistants that serve the functions he discusses. In essence, abolishing the police.
He was curious about this and says he would like to see the experiment start in a smaller town with a voluntary police department. He does thinks it would have to be outside of system of entrenched interests, as they would contaminate it with current agendas and policies. But he was interested in seeing a community of about 6,000 hire a single assistance coordinator then work from volunteer assistants, each to their own talents, skills and neighborhoods.
In regards to police training, he thinks we are putting the cart before the horse. Officers should first prove proficient with public relations before showing to be worthy and capable of handling further specialized training. And only then should they receive individualized instructions to deal with more intense policing activities. Rick also agrees with my idea that the current paradigm of police training actually leads to more dangerous interactions than it prevents. We discussed the horrors of robotic violence caused by nationwide police trainers like William Lewinsky.
I even mention that I think that the way that policing now works, and especially the training, the police killings we are calling manslaughter are actually murder – an idea which he considered interesting.
Rick discusses how these training objectives, the absolutes that are taught that lead to compulsive law enforcement and violence, were put into place in order to increase consistency and prevent corruption, but that whatever little good that did, it has also cut off individual reason and adaptive, situation-based judgement calls.
I find it necessary to add to our conversation that there are more fundamental problems with policing besides the thin blue line and cops not holding one another accountable and all of the other things we have discussed. Police provide their service by force, not consent. They monopolize use of force and problem solving. They are funded through the theft of taxation. And most fundamentally, to me, the very laws they are enforcing are irrational and immoral.
He doesn’t disagree.
In the meantime, however, he wants to see police actually serve and protect the people. From there we get rid of bad laws (most of them, certainly any victimless crime laws) and simplify the ones that are left.
It may not be the entire solution, but it is a start. And by acting as an influence on his charges as sheriff, these changes would slowly take place, allowing officers and the community to adjust and evolve with them.
I sincerely hope the people of Linn County make the right choice this November. Not only does this present an opportunity for the progress and growth of the communities in that county, but would create a new kind of police force that could become a model for others all across the country.
Hard as it may be to believe that yours truly would ever support anyone within the profession of policing – I support Rick Stewart. Both on the strength of his ideas and campaign, as well as by the measurement of him as an exceptional human being.
And even if he doesn’t win, I hope potential and current police across the country hear his message, and that his influence helps to destroy the police state and eventually abolish policing as we know it. Even if it means a stop through Mayberry along the way.