“It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what police do and what motivates crime”: An Interview with Steve Moore

By Amanda Knox with Christopher Robinson

From 1983 to 2008, Steve Moore served as a Special Agent for the FBI. After retiring, he chronicled his experiences in his memoir, Special Agent Man: My Life in the FBI as a Terrorist Hunter, Helicopter Pilot, and Certified Sniper (Chicago Review Press, 2012). He’s now a law enforcement contributor for CNN, and a professional pilot.

I reached out to Moore to better understand how law enforcement officers are responding to calls to defund and abolish the police and replace law enforcement with more robust, community-based, social safety nets.  

Amanda Knox

Could you please tell me a brief history of your career in law enforcement?

Steve Moore 

I began the FBI Academy in December ’83. I graduated the next year. One of my first assignments was an undercover, covert assignment surveilling and trying to discover the plans for a particular group of Aryan Nations members in the Pacific Northwest. I did that for a winter. That was terrifying. Before the case was over, one FBI agent had been shot, another law enforcement officer was killed. Several of the ringleaders of this group, well, one was killed. The rest were arrested and are still serving their sentences. I flew for a while in the FBI kind of as a recovery for that, then went to white supremacist crimes again. That’s where I spent about half my investigative career. I was the case agent for the Buford Furrow shooting at the Jewish community center in Granada Hills, California in the late ’90s. After 9/11, I was switched over to al Qaeda and international terrorism cases. Ran al Qaeda investigations after 9/11 for the LA office, and then ended up running an overseas squad that handled counterterrorism through Asia from Pakistan, Indonesia to the Philippines. And that was enough. I retired. I did a lot of undercover work and I did SWAT for a while. So it was a very full, interesting career.

Amanda Knox

I cannot imagine how you’re sane today after spending a career, not just hearing about domestic terrorism and international terrorism, but right in the midst of it, investigating and trying to take it down.

Steve Moore 

It’s weird watching cross burnings and things like that. It gives you a scary look behind the curtain of humanity. I also worked school shootings, things like that, and you start to have a pretty sad view of some people in society.

Amanda Knox  

Right now, there’s a lot of talk about white supremacy. You’ve seen it up close and personal. Can you talk about what kinds of experiences you had interacting with these people?

Steve Moore 

I can’t speak in low enough terms about my regard for the whole thing. They are sometimes given more credit for being intelligent and organized than they actually are. Obviously, you get four or five people with good IQs in the group, and then they begin to do scary things and you have to just stamp it out. I consider them kind of a background noise. They’re always there, you’re not going to get rid of them any more than you’re going to get rid of insanity, but although they can be very noisy, they tend to be more bark than bite.

Amanda Knox

One of the big claims that’s being presented by protesters is that our institutions, and especially our law enforcement and criminal justice system, are fundamentally corrupted by white supremacy. What’s your take on that?

Steve Moore  

If they’re saying fundamentally and all police and systematically, I’d have to disagree with it. That’s like saying that somebody with cancer is fundamentally dead. No, it can be cured. But is there a problem? Yes. When I was working Aryan Nations in the northwest in the mid ’80s, one of the reasons we were so covert is that we couldn’t let certain police departments know we were there, because the police were helping to train some of the Aryan Nations. But at the same time, they were a stark minority. We had lists of people that we knew we couldn’t trust, and the rest we could. Even in the Pacific Northwest during that hard time, the vast majority of the officers were very trustworthy and against the racist-leaning officers. So, do I think that there’s an infection? Yes. Do I think we need to put the patient to death? No.

Amanda Knox

One claim is that police and policing are beyond reform, that we have to abolish a system where the government has a monopoly on violence and on enforcement of social norms. And the practical way of achieving that would be 100% defunding the police apparatus. Some people have even suggested including existing pensions for police officers. What’s your perspective on that?

Steve Moore  

Going after police pensions would be just a punitive thing. It would have nothing to do with correcting the situation. But as far as shutting it down completely, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what police do and what motivates crime.

Amanda Knox 

Unpack that for me. 

Steve Moore  

[The] New York Times had an article: “Yes, we mean literally abolish the police.” The author said that the police spend most of their time responding to noise complaints, parking and traffic citations, and other non-criminal issues. Even if that were true, the rest of the time is spent going after things like internet crime, major financial crime, white supremacist terrorists, sexual predators, school shooters. We need lots more money in mental health. We need a lot more money in drug rehabilitation, drug awareness, drug education. But none of that will cover things like a school shooter, who’s not going to cooperate with any mental health program. It’s not going to address sexual predators. If you think that mental health care at the community level is going to stop sexual predators, well, then you don’t understand sexual predators. So I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what police do and what is absolutely necessary to be done in society just to keep a lid on things.

Amanda Knox  

What do you feel are the necessary things that police do and what do you think are some things that police do that are unnecessary?

Steve Moore  

The main thing that police do is protect life and property. If somebody calls and says, “There’s somebody rattling the door on my house at 3am,” yep, that’s what police do. They respond to violent crimes, they protect property, and they do so much that are not addressed by these programs or philosophies that are being espoused as to what would happen after a defunding.

Amanda Knox  

I’ve been trying to imagine what, realistically, a system would look like if you didn’t have a force. And one thing that Chris pointed out to me is, after white flight in Detroit, Dan Gilbert, the owner of Quicken Loans, decided that he was going to revitalize the city center by buying up a ton of property for pennies on the dollar and trying to get people to come and move into the city. But because it’s a city that’s built for 8 million people and 2 million people live there, the fire department is stretched thin and the police department is stretched thin and the actual city center was not secure enough for his employees to feel safe to live there. So he hired his own police force. What started as a state-funded police force turned into a privatized police force. 

Steve Moore  

Absolutely. What happens when police response is considered inadequate is people start their own police departments. After the FBI, I took over security for Pepperdine University. And because Pepperdine University can be accessed only by Pacific Coast Highway and Las Virgenes Canyon, response times for police calls could be sometimes five to ten minutes. Therefore, we started our own police department. And that is what happens when police go away. What’s really going to happen is, that will start happening all over cities where there is a lack of police, or a perceived lack of police. And you know who they’re going to hire? They’re going to hire the police officers who used to be in that police department because they’re already trained. And you get into territorialism. It is a kind of modern feudalism, where one neighborhood is up against another neighborhood, and in those areas that aren’t policed adequately, you are not going to tell me that citizens trained up in a community policing model can somehow immediately become effective police officers. You’re going to have what we’ve already been fighting throughout the United States in urban areas: gang control. And it is, in my opinion, not a way to solve a terrible, terrible societal problem we have nationwide, with police abuse of people of color. It is a way to further victimize people of color and lower income neighborhoods.

Amanda Knox  

Do you think that some of that danger might be avoided if there’s also a call for reinvesting in the community so the community can be more empowered to address the emotional needs of young men, who are the vast majority of people committing crimes? Is there any way that restorative model might make policing obsolete, or is there always going to be a need for some kind of policing?

Steve Moore 

If you were able to empower those communities, which is absolutely essential, you are going to reduce certain types of crime. You’re going to get a lot of kids out of drugs, out of gangs, but you are not going to reduce one little bit the statistical incidence of mental illness. You’re not going to reduce one little bit the statistical reality of sexual predators, of school shootings. The programs that you’re talking about, while valuable and laudable, don’t address some of the major issues. Terrorism didn’t spring up simply because of a disadvantaged neighborhood. There’s greed, there’s evil in the world. You cannot simply say that all crime is caused by disempowered communities and feelings of hopelessness. Sometimes, guys just want a Ferrari.

Amanda Knox 

I would be super interested to know from your experience where you think crime comes from. I don’t think people necessarily always commit crimes out of desperation, although there definitely are a lot of crimes that are committed out of poverty or addiction. But I also think that there’s crimes of a stratified society. Do you think that there’s something about this weird gray middle ground where crime is caused by unfulfillment?

Steve Moore 

It’s lack of fulfillment. It’s dysfunctional families. Dysfunction is an equal opportunity afflicter. And so I think, while certain crimes and certain feelings of helplessness are exacerbated in lower income locations, you can’t say that all of the crime in those areas is caused by that. 

Amanda Knox  

A major cause of a lot of the unrest is a loss of trust in the institution of police. Part of that is police and prosecutors not being held accountable for misconduct. Instead of the police policing themselves, there has been a history of self preservation even in the face of misconduct. What kinds of things can law enforcement do to earn back the trust of the people they serve?

Steve Moore  

There needs to be accountability. Here’s what you’re in the middle of. There was a time when doctors off duty would not intervene at accident scenes because they had no immunity for doing something wrong while they were trying to save a life. And so there was legislation passed in many states that gave them immunity as long as they were acting in good faith. The fear among police officers is that a mistake will result in them going to jail for murder. That is one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is that when you see somebody standing on somebody’s neck and going limp, and you hold them there while they’re in custody and that person dies, that’s not a mistake. Between those two extremes, we need to find some significant accountability. And in return for that accountability, the communities are going to need to learn what goes on in a well-meaning officer’s mind. They’re not infallible. But first, we have to have accountability, because that’s what’s been lacking. People believe, rightly so in many cases, that officers have skated on things that were gross misapplications of force. The mind boggles. I’m involved in the aviation industry now that I’ve retired, and one thing about the aviation industry is, if a pilot makes a mistake and people get injured, that person is never going to fly for an airliner again, because you’re not allowed to make those mistakes. Too often policemen are making egregious mistakes and they get to keep their badge. And for the vast majority of police officers who are doing the right thing, they have to realize that until there is that kind of accountability, the trust won’t be there. If you really do want to have people understand that the vast majority police are good, then you have to deal correctly with the ones that aren’t.

Amanda Knox 

I also think that there is something to be said about how whole communities of people have felt targeted and othered by general policies of law enforcement.

Steve Moore 

Like stop and frisk and things like that.

Amanda Knox 

Like stop and frisk and just the laws that, how we decide how to criminalize things can target communities of people. How do we address the loss of trust that has resulted from that kind of policing?

Steve Moore

If you have a city council that truly represents your constituency, you should have opportunity to address those things. Because the police will do what they’re allowed, because they’re human beings. Something like stop and frisk, obviously, it’s a very bad idea. But somewhere along the line, the politicians put that into the department’s bag of tricks. And we have to keep that kind of stuff from going into the bag of tricks. I would say that we need to give those communities a much stronger voice in how their departments will police them.

Amanda Knox 

I think people are pulling at this same thread going, “Where is this coming from?” Some people have pulled it as far as, “Here’s who is committing the crime, so here’s who we’re policing.” Some people have pulled it as far as, “Why are the majority of these crimes happening? There’s economic disparity.” Some people have pulled it as far back as the origins of our country. “We enslaved whole groups of people and treated them like others.” How far do we need to go back in order to trace where our problems are coming from?

Steve Moore  

America is unique. You know, Britain also had colonial possessions. Other countries were very avaricious, picking up colonies and slaves and things like that. America is the only country now who still has 40 million guns in it. We’re a different breed. I don’t know. I can’t honestly tell you. My personal thoughts are that there’s evil in everybody, and a person decides whether to allow that part of them to control their lives or they don’t. I don’t believe that any society will ever eliminate crime. Regardless of what the causes, we will always have somebody who takes advantage of an unlocked door, who is looking for excitement and who’s greedy, who wants the next thing, even if they didn’t earn it or buy it. There are people who want to hurt other people simply because that’s the way they are wired. But the problem we’re having is, policemen and law enforcement officers are not philosophers. We are told to go out into a community and enforce the laws that Congress or the state representatives have enacted. And that is our job. And a lot of people believe that officers roll up to a scene at a liquor store where there’s a fight and should be thinking, “What is motivating this person to want to rob this liquor store?” They don’t think that way at all. They think, “How can I not get shot while getting this guy in handcuffs?” So maybe the first thing we need to do is broaden their views on it. The other thing is the culture in police departments. I remember, the FBI, the very first day of the academy, it just struck me. One of the first speakers said, “If you give four FBI agents who are crooked the power of subpoena and wiretaps, they can take down a government. You can never abuse your power. We are supposed to be the ones who are the last wall before anarchy.” The culture in the FBI was there. I’m not saying we’re perfect. A lot of agents were not. But it was a culture where there was a feeling of responsibility every day when you came to work. And we can start that kind of training in the police department today. But in many police departments, when those officers get out of the academy and onto the streets, they will get the training officers saying, “They give you that honor and reputation crap? Well, forget it. You’re in the streets now.” You just can’t have that. It has to be a cultural change. You have to start thinking, “What makes this person tick? Why do you want to be a policeman?” And then you have to worry about policemen who’ve been in the field more than five years and all of a sudden start feeling bitter. Seeing too much violence that can just eat on you, and you get into these situations where officers literally are damaged by what they’ve seen. You have to do ongoing things to make sure that they are continuing to be well. You don’t just put a policeman in the field, give him recurrent training on firearms, and say he’s going to be good for 20 years. The vast majority of policemen I’ve talked to are angry at the system that allows officers like the Minneapolis officer to remain where he is. Many are embarrassed and they’re hurting. They want change. But it has to be a cultural change. Some people are just going to have to find that they’re not really suited to be a policeman. But a knee jerk reaction to destroy the entire institution will only hurt the people who need change the most.

Amanda Knox 

People have identified police unions as being an obstacle to accountability. If so many police officers want their colleagues to be held accountable, why aren’t they making their police unions do something about that?

Steve Moore  

Well, because that would require lowering the union’s power. And if you weaken the union’s power, they’re going to fight that tooth and nail. I understand the need for unions and I understand that police officers can also be unfairly treated at times. But the police unions cannot allow themselves to be complicit in protecting officers that shouldn’t be officers.

Amanda Knox

The only experience that I have with unions is my mom’s teachers union. And I think that, on the one hand, the teachers unions are super important because society at large doesn’t value teaching. Teachers have to combine their resources and say, “You do need to give me a better salary. We should cut down on the size of classes because I can’t give the amount of attention I need to all of the students.” But on the other hand, the union also protects teachers who are just checked out, people who really need to retire, but don’t want to because they still want to be getting the paycheck. Why are unions leveraging their power to support people who are not representing their profession? 

Steve Moore

Here’s the bottom line. Amanda. You’ve heard about the brotherhood of police officers. It really is that way. It is hard to explain to you. When you come out of a situation where, if your partner hadn’t done something, you would probably be dead, before you leave work, you want to hug that person and say, “Thank you. I’m going home to my family because of you.” And down the line, that person does something horrible. And now the guy who you depended on to save your life at one point, he needs your support. I’ve been in these situations where at the end of the day, your hands are shaking so bad, and you look at that person, you say, “I will never forget him or her.” And so there is a deep, deep bond in police departments. But there has to be a reality check. Let me tell you just one incident from aviation. Aviation done wrong kills people. In Tenerife years and years ago, two 747s collided, and in the cockpit, when the captain said, “Okay, we’re cleared for takeoff,” the co-pilot said, “No, we’re not.” And the pilot, who was one of the chief pilots to the airline said, “Yes, we are. Are you telling the chief pilot that he doesn’t know when we’re cleared for takeoff?” And the first officer shut up, and 500 people died. Several accidents like that happened over the course of several years. And they came up with the reality that very, very rarely is everybody in the cockpit completely clueless as to the mistake that’s being made. But first officers were not stepping up to tell captains that they were making a mistake. And if they were, the captains were swatting them down like flies. And it took years, but that culture is largely changed now due to an absolute reliance on a thing called Crew Resource Management, where it’s on the cockpit tape that you disagree with what the captain is doing, and he does it anyway, he’s in deep trouble. It has to be consensus in the cockpit now, instead of one person in charge and the other person blindly following. As we saw in Minneapolis, there was an officer who twice said, “Shouldn’t we roll him on his side?” If that was an airline cockpit, he would have said, “I’m not comfortable with him not being rolled on his side,” and the captain would have had no choice but to roll him on his side for consensus. And in the airlines, you have the cockpit voice recorder that records every single thing in the cockpit. We need cameras and microphones on every single officer. And we need to change the culture to where, if you have two officers at the scene and they have a disagreement, they take the more conservative approach. There has to be a one person veto in every single violent situation.

Amanda Knox 

Why is it that in police situations, it’s more fluid than say, in an airline situation? I know it’s not always clear what’s the right and wrong thing to do.

Steve Moore  

I got in trouble once for not shooting.

Amanda Knox  

You did? 

Steve Moore 

We were in a crack house in a housing project, and one of the individuals bolted up the stairs and I chased him upstairs, followed him into a room, broke through the door, and the person put their hands under a pillow and pretended like they had a gun and said, “Get out of the room.” I told him three times to pull his hands out, then finally had to put my finger down on the trigger, and that’s when he raised his hands. And I came down and one of the people said, “What happened?” And I told him. They said, “But he could have shot your partner. You don’t have the right to make that decision.” I said, “I didn’t think he was going to shoot me.” He said, “But what if he shot your partner? You’re not allowed to make those decisions for your partner.” I said, “Dude, I was pretty sure he didn’t have a gun.” Obviously I wasn’t in a lot of trouble, but people really second guess you on things like that. I had another situation where I could not have been more proud of one of my agents. When I was a supervisor, I got a call saying there’s been a shooting, suspect is down, blah, blah, blah. And it was a task force, so some of them were FBI agents, and I went to the scene and the agent who was there, I said, “Did you fire?” And he said, “No, I had my gun out, and I heard the other officers firing. I could see the bad guy in the car.” And I said, “Why didn’t you fire?” He goes, “I didn’t know why they were shooting.” I’ve never been so proud of anybody. Because you can’t just say, “Well, if he shot, it must be justified.” That’s not how it works. People can’t be penalized for not taking violent action. People should have to explain violent action.

Amanda Knox

What do you hope will be the outcome of the current movement?

Steve Moore  

What I hope for and what I think is possible may not be the same. I hope that we start on a road where everybody at least agrees that the direction is correct. Everybody on all sides of this, from police officers, to management, to disadvantaged communities, to the president, to governors, everybody is going to have to give something to make this work. We have to make drastic changes. Think of America after 9/11. Now we can’t get onto airplanes without being strip-searched. Life changed drastically after that, and I think life is going to have to change drastically after this.