Local Police Receive Special Training, Set Up "Hard Teams," and Generally Get Paranoid About the WTO Conference
Once a week, since the summer, Seattle police officers across the city have spent the half hour before hitting the streets for duty--a time normally set aside for roll call and discussing the business of the day--brushing up on crowd and riot control techniques, according to a source familiar with the training. Indeed, on this particular Thursday evening in mid-November--with less than 20 days to go before the WTO conference draws some 50,000 people to Seattle, including trade ministers from 134 countries and tens of thousands of protesters--our city's finest were learning how to handle civil disobedience tactics with rarely used, extra-long riot batons.
These behind-the-scenes training sessions belie the cordial, calm face the city and the Seattle Police Department have been wearing regarding the WTO conference in public meetings, discussions with protesters, and in media interviews. While anti-corporate protesters have made no secret of their planned actions during the November 30-December 3 conference--including a commie-sounding "Festival of Resistance," sponsored by a network of anti-WTO activists, and an AFL-CIO-organized march from Seattle Center to the Convention Center--the SPD has been more cagey.
According to those who've been meeting with the SPD about these issues, including Ron Judd, Executive Secretary Treasurer of the King County Labor Council; Newell Aldrich, assistant to Seattle City Council Member Nick Licata; and Robin Denburg, Seattle Greens leader, the police have come off as eager to accommodate activists. In true multi-culti-friendly Seattle form, SPD Assistant Chief Ed Joiner, who is in charge of WTO conference security, has been offering protesters help in everything from getting them the best photo opportunities to helping them get their messages out to the media. He also says he's trusting the protesters to police themselves with self-appointed marshals. Heck, the friendly cops have even set aside Freeway Park, just one block south of the Convention Center, and Seattle Center's KeyArena for gatherings and "permanent demonstration" areas.
In reality, the SPD's shiny exterior is masking a department edgy about the upcoming conference and preparing for disaster. "We are planning for the worst," says department spokesperson, Officer Christie-Lynne Bonner. "Your imagination is just as good as mine." Bonner says the police are considering every possibility, from a giant snow storm to an assassination. Facing iffy equipment, over-taxing assignments, rumors of planned terrorism, and wild predictions that officers will end up dead, the SPD is, quite frankly, freaking out. In fact, Seattle's so-called benevolent relationship with activism is about to be tested. "This thing can go smoothly or it can turn into a nightmare," one SPD sergeant (who wished to remain anonymous) told The Stranger. "No one really feels ready. Many of us are hoping to God that we don't get sent down."
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The plan for managing the WTO conference and its accompanying protests is a complex one, involving 30 local, county, state, and federal agencies. Though the officials involved are being tight-lipped about the details, it appears that federal agencies like the FBI and ATF will step in should there be a bomb threat or a hostage situation. The Secret Service will provide security for individual dignitaries and emissaries, and the SPD and other local agencies will be left to manage crowds, protests, and outer-perimeter security at conference events.
The SPD sergeant told us that the department's WTO conference training started in earnest in late summer, with a day-long special session focusing on crowd control and riot situations at the old Sand Point navy base in north Seattle. At that session, new SPD officers, along with those who haven't been involved in a riot situation since the Rodney King clashes, got reacquainted with their gas masks. Apparently, the reunion didn't go smoothly, as the department realized the equipment was outdated and placed an order for new masks.
Since that first session, according to interviews with officers, spokespeople, and other observers, the SPD has come up with a detailed plan for dealing with trouble. While some officers will retain their general beat cop duties--responding to 911 calls, breaking up troublesome groups of youth, and so forth--the department has established at least two special policing teams for the conference.
Officers from precincts all over the city have been temporarily assigned to the SPD's Special Patrol Unit, which is described as a SWAT-like team. These officers are receiving crowd-control training (including how to use batons on troublemakers, as was observed at the Capitol Hill precinct). Out of this newly fortified Special Patrol Unit, according to one source, the department has set up the conference-focused teams: a back-up unit that will move in if property is damaged and/or violence breaks out, and an ass-kicking emergency unit nicknamed "The Hard Team," which will take over should there be a full-fledged riot. The Hard Team will be decked out in hard plastic body armor--"like hockey players," says the source--and will wear full riot gear, thus the idiotic name. Sources also say select officers have been specially trained in rappelling techniques, in case they have to head off activists who decide to play Spider-Man.
Here's what else we know:
· SPD patrol officers will be pulling 12-hour days. Burglary and vice cops, along with detectives, will be on patrol and working security as well. Though the department won't confirm how many additional police officers will be on Seattle's streets during the conference, a spokesperson confirmed that extra forces are being drawn from Kent, Tukwila, and Redmond.
· Though the SPD won't say where it is, the department has established a designated location for detaining protesters should mass arrests become necessary. "We've got a lot of possibilities that go way beyond the jail sites," says Bonner.
· A wagon-train-style barricade using King County Metro buses will be built around the Westin Hotel downtown, where many conference participants will be staying.
· Local hospitals are stockpiling drugs that help combat the effects of chemical and biological weapons. These drugs include Atropine, which acts as an antidote to Sarin, the gas used in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack. Doctors working emergency rooms will be monitoring incoming patients for the effects of biological and chemical weapons.
· Up to 400 federal emergency-response personnel will be on hand in the event of a major biological or chemical attack. The city has received a $350,000 federal grant to prepare for terrorist attacks, along with $20,000 worth of medication that's hidden in a secret location somewhere in the city. Federal personnel in Seattle for the conference include the Disaster Medical Assistance Team, the National Medical Response Team, and the Chem Bio Incident Response Force Team. A Management Support Team will be present to coordinate all the teams.
· President Clinton is expected to arrive late on November 30, and will deliver a major trade address the next day. Clinton's limousine will be surrounded by Seattle's finest, with the Secret Service providing security for the president's undisclosed route. The Secret Service and the FBI have provided the SPD and the Washington State Patrol with special training on responding to motorcade attacks.
· The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)--which specializes in response and recovery during natural disasters (Mike Howard, the local FEMA representative, cited the Oklahoma City bombing as an example)--has committed staff to the WTO conference.
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No doubt, the men with the sunglasses and the funny wires sticking out of their ears will be running the show. But it seems the Feds have cast a spell on local law enforcement authorities: Suddenly, the entire global importance of it all has officers both mystified by the intrigue and terrified that some activist-nut is going to sneak into the dinner event they're guarding and plant a bomb masked like chicken Kiev on the dinner tray intended for WTO Director-General Michael Moore.
In other words, the entire WTO affair has the locals acting as secretive and pompous as the Feds. "The city [of Tukwila] is prepared to spend whatever it takes [on security]," states Tukwila Police Captain Doug Partlow. Partlow, whose department will be providing security for a ministerial dinner at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field, wouldn't elaborate on the training his department has undergone. He said only, "We're in the process of making sure all our officers are trained to handle this event."
The weight of the WTO conference and its surrounding security plans has fostered in the SPD a heightened level of paranoia as well, leading every one of the handful of officers we talked with to go off the record. According to a family member of one SPD officer, it all started when rumors began that the FBI had released a report concluding that as many as five local police officers would be killed during the conference. "It wasn't something you could do anything about," says the family member. "It's something you log in the back of your mind. It's like sending a soldier off to war." It turned out that the report was false--the FBI had never compiled any such information.
That bit of clarification didn't quell fears among the rank and file, however. The SPD sergeant we interviewed told us that the November 1 firebombing at the downtown Seattle Gap--which was accompanied by spray-painted anarchy symbols--has become a touchstone among officers for speculation that there's more to come at the WTO conference. Some officers even think the Gap firebombing was a "reconnaissance mission" by terrorists, to see how the SPD would respond.
And, as if the department needed any more fuel for their paranoiac bonfire, an anonymous poster was recently distributed to all the local precincts. Depicting an overturned and burning police squad car, the flyer read, "Revolution spreads like wildfire." Says the sergeant, "If it all goes totally to crap, my guess is they'll call in the National Guard."
To some extent, the way the SPD responds to protests will depend on the tactics employed by activists. But if one needs proof that the department is poised for action, take note of this recent event: On Monday, November 15, a lone UW student, 19-year-old Ingrid Chapman, scaled the 100-foot flagpole at the UW's Red Square to unfurl a giant WTO protest banner. Chapman started her climb at 5:15 a.m., was spotted by school security at 6:00, and by 6:15, before she had even made it to the top, was surrounded by four city fire trucks, two SPD cruisers, an ambulance, and a rescue truck, according to a student eyewitness. Police cordoned off the square as the Seattle Fire Department threw their spotlights on Chapman and extended a ladder directly over her head--blocking her path. Chapman unfurled her black and gold banner that read "Rise Up Nov. 30," accompanied by the letters "WTO" with a slash through them, only to have the fire department cut it down immediately. Chapman was forced to scale back down the pole and was taken downtown and charged with criminal trespassing, reckless endangerment, and obstruction of public service.
"It's interesting to see the city respond within 15 minutes," says John Bowling, an activist who came from Oregon earlier this month to work with the protest group, Direct Action Network. "They were pretty enthusiastic about getting a WTO protester. It was like a trophy hunt," he says.
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Besides preparing themselves for the upcoming conference, the SPD has been reaching out, so to speak. They're prepping property owners for the worst, visiting downtown business groups and neighborhood associations to discuss security concerns. The tone has been predictable: No one is expecting that anything will happen, but, well, you never know. For example, last month the department distributed a list of emergency preparedness "tips" to the Pioneer Square Business Improvement Association. The 21 tips are geared toward fending off angry mobs intent on destroying property, and include recommendations to keep plenty of sheets of plywood on hand for boarding up windows, establish a communication network with fellow business owners, and secure all money in safes.
According to advocates for the homeless and homeless people themselves, the SPD has also been reaching out to the poor, though not in such a friendly manner. They say the SPD has amped up routine monitoring and bullying in recent weeks, herding the homeless out of high-profile areas as the conference draws near. Some even claim the police have told them to get out of town. Mike, who asked that his last name not be included in this story, says he was attending a late-night organizing meeting for the WTO conference tent city (homeless activists have threatened to set up an encampment during the gathering), when he saw officers with dogs patrolling Pioneer Square. He says they uprooted and rounded up as many as eight people in one night. "The dogs were sniffing out people [who were] crashed illegally," he says. An SPD spokesperson denies that dogs are being used in Pioneer Square to harass the homeless.
Bond, who works at a downtown outreach center, and also asked that his full name not be used, adds that "police vans are picking up dozens of homeless people in the mornings, too." He says he's seen vans circling city streets at around 8:00 a.m., the time many homeless shelters close.
Ultimately, the attitude of benevolent accommodation the SPD has been presenting to protest organizers like King County Labor Council's Judd doesn't jibe with the Hard Teams, roll-call trainings, and anxiety that's brewing behind the scenes. If folks like Judd play along, protesters stick to designated areas, and nobody shows up with a bag of Sarin gas, things will go smoothly. "We want to ensure that everyone has a right to free speech," says SPD spokesperson Bonner. "But if they infringe on other people's rights, we will take action. If they are willing to coordinate with us, we'll ensure that they get their message out. If not, we're willing to take action."
Local law-enforcement departments (and ultimately, protesters) may have their hands full, as a number of activists who haven't been meeting with the SPD are cooking up their own plans behind closed doors. "I doubt that we'll be spending much time in the designated areas," mocks Erica Kay, a volunteer with the Direct Action Network. "People are being encouraged to do direct action. We want to directly stop the WTO from meeting."