Dear national media: Please stop asking former Seattle police chiefs how to quell the riots outside St. Louis.
To us this is like asking Dick Cheney what to do about Iraq. Been there, failed that.
Yet three of Seattle’s departed top cops have been asked recently to opine on the terrible scenes in Ferguson, Mo., and to grade the ways police there have responded. Despite getting mostly F’s when they tried to do the same job.
Most ubiquitous is Norm Stamper, who has become everyone’s go-to source for “they’re doing it all wrong!” quotes about heavy-handed cops. In the past week Stamper has been everywhere, apologizing repeatedly for his crackdown on the Seattle WTO protests in 1999 and decrying police militarization.
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“When will we ever learn?” Stamper told the LA Times last week, urging Ferguson police to drop the body armor and shields for a warmer approach.
Fine, but when they tried that — when the governor brought in a highway patrol captain to walk with protesters, someone who Stamper enthused displayed “textbook conflict-management and interpersonal competence” — that didn’t work either. Within a few days the violence had intensified to the point the governor called in the actual military, the National Guard.
Former Seattle chief and longtime captain Jim Pugel also weighed in. He said the Ferguson police’s big mistake was resorting to force too quickly.
“The police need to let some venting go on,” Pugel said. “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.”
Now this rang a bell, because “Some Things Are Going to Get Broken” was basically our own police’s motto for the May Day march here two years ago. They lay back and indirectly let mobs of black-clad protesters with sticks smash up a large part of downtown. One assistant chief got so agitated by what he perceived was the department’s under-reaction that he went all Phoenix Jones, rushing into the fray in his shirt-sleeves before falling on his face.
“This was not a shining example of successful crowd management and protection of property,” dryly concluded a damning independent review. “The ‘mayhem’ that resulted significantly damaged the credibility of the Police Department with the community because of the ‘appearance of inability’ to protect the downtown.”
Next up in our riot-patrol rogues’ gallery is Gil Kerlikowske, Seattle’s chief in the early 2000s who now is head of the Border Patrol. He was asked about Ferguson and had the good sense not to judge the police there directly.
But earlier, in an interview with National Public Radio, he seemed to pin his own debacle in the Pioneer Square Mardi Gras riots of 2001 on the heavy gear Seattle police were wearing — which he blamed on the union.
“What had happened after WTO was that the police guild did a survey and said, ‘You’re really putting these officers at risk because they should have helmets, pads, on and on,’ ” Kerlikowske said. “Well, to tell you the truth, it makes it pretty difficult, when you’re talking from behind a face shield with a gas mask, to engage with the public and say, ‘Look, let’s, let’s tone this down. Let’s calm things down. …’
“I regret that today. I listened to what the police guild said, that the officers would be in danger if they weren’t in hardened gear. I would’ve been smarter to approach it with officers dressed as I was, in soft gear, and deal with them.”
That all sounds intriguing and NPR-ish. It leaves out a bit of a key detail, though — that Kerlikowske and his commanders, freaked out about what had happened at WTO, had ordered police to stay on the perimeter, even as violence erupted. Seventy people ended up injured and one dead that night.
Look, dealing with angry crowds in the right way has got to be the most difficult task in policing. It’s also clear what they’re doing in Ferguson isn’t working.
But Seattle ought to be about the last to judge. Or advise. We’ve tried going hard, we’ve tried going soft, we’ve tried most ways in between these past 15 years.
Mostly what we’ve gotten is a string of ex-chiefs, all with rueful, or revisionist, stories to tell.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org