The violent reaction of police to protesters in Ferguson, Mo., is an example of how not to handle civic unrest — a lesson Seattle learned the hard way during the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) riots, according to two former police chiefs.
Norm Stamper was chief of police when tens of thousands of protesters in downtown Seattle overwhelmed his riot-gear-clad officers, who responded with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. A longtime critic of the militarization of police departments, Stamper now says he “violated my own thinking” by allowing officers to quickly resort to force.
Police in Ferguson, he said, made the same mistake.
“It is something that people in law enforcement should have learned but have not,” said Stamper, 70, from his home in the San Juan Islands, where he now writes and consults.
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Stamper has long been a critic of what he calls the “vast increase in the militarization” of police — it was the topic of a thesis he wrote in the 1970s, he said.
Officers once armed with six-shot revolvers and nightsticks now have access to assault-style weapons and body armor, and dress for battle rather than the beat.
Stamper said the use of hard body armor, armored-personnel carriers and officers wearing military-style uniforms and toting military-style firearms and hardware sets them apart from the community they are sworn to protect.
“That is one sure way not to win public confidence,” he said. “It is an unfortunate trend.”
The wars on drugs and terrorism have prompted the federal government to make military equipment available to police, and manufacturers of military arms and equipment often offer “law-enforcement only” versions of their wares.
Stamper says that once police get such equipment, they feel the need to use it.
Seattle police have received some military-surplus equipment, including ballistic plates for protective vests, rifle scopes and other equipment.
Jim Pugel, who retired in March as the Seattle Police Department’s interim chief and who wrote the critique of the WTO response at the time, said the Ferguson police’s mistake was responding to the first show of unrest with force.
“People there are angry, and with good reason,” Pugel said. “The police need to let some venting go on. Some things are going to get broken.
“But if you immediately suppress, it will be perceived as an overreaction and that will compound the problem.”
Another problem is allowing outside agencies onto the front lines. In Missouri, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office responded when the Ferguson department was overwhelmed. Those outside officers, Pugel said, “have no ownership” in the community and little motivation not to resort to force. During WTO, Pugel said, several of the more serious run-ins between protesters and police involved officers from other agencies.
Both Stamper and Pugel believe that there is a place for military-style equipment in law enforcement, but that its use should be limited. SWAT teams who deal with armed criminals should have access to the precision weaponry and equipment used by military forces.
Mike Carter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-3706