Bye Bye, Stamper
Seattle's Police Chief Resigns as Pissed Officers Blame Him for Everything That Went Wrong at the WTO Conference
You know what? We've been chasing these little fuckers since 7:00 a.m. You can't catch 'em. And this is my second 16-hour shift.
-- From a conversation between two officers on Capitol Hill, early on the night of Wednesday, December 1.
THEY WERE PARANOID. They were tired. They were scared. And now, a week after the tear gas has settled and as police actions are being called into question, the line officers who worked the World Trade Organization protests last week are angry at Seattle Police Department leaders, whom they say deserted them when they needed help most. That's part of what's driven Police Chief Norm Stamper to announce that he's calling it quits after six years on the job. Though he's claiming to be stepping aside in order to "depoliticize" current and future investigations into the actions of cops during the WTO conference, it's impossible to remain chief without the faith and cooperation of the cops who work under you. Stamper's never been particularly popular among the rank and file, but as the world scoffs at Seattle's handling of protesters (the always-delightful Cuban President Fidel Castro even called Seattle's police "worse than Pinochet"), officers point the finger at Stamper, Assistant Chief Ed Joiner, and Mayor Paul Schell. "Schell and Stamper say they saw stuff [on TV] that was inappropriate," grouses veteran SPD Officer David Proudfoot, referring to some well-publicized incidents of brutality. Along with many officers we spoke to, Proudfoot is bitter that Schell and Stamper criticized line officers after failing to provide instruction. "If they have concerns, they should have at least responded to the East Precinct and given direction if they think it was needed," he says.
Usually tight-lipped, officers are sounding off to anyone who will listen. Angry cops say they didn't receive the training necessary to handle the large and unruly crowds that showed up for the WTO meeting. And more importantly, when the situation started to go sour, they say they didn't get the support they needed from those in charge. Not only were they deprived of bathroom breaks and the hot meals they were promised, but when it came time to make important decisions like whether to use tear gas, leaders weren't returning pages or phone calls, officers say.
Because Seattle has never seen a protest of this size, the city's leadership, it appears, walked blindly into a disaster. While the SPD did host approximately 30 training sessions -- including how to use riot sticks and how to operate as a military-style unit -- officers say the preparations weren't enough ["Insecurity Plan," Nov 25]. The main complaint is that Assistant Chief Joiner (a fixture at recent press meetings) stressed to line cops that SPD intelligence had no indication that radicals were planning violence or significant property damage. He also assured them that the city had made deals with protest leaders, and that the most police would have to contend with would be orchestrated arrests during civil disobedience. Apparently ignoring the true nature of protest -- and the fact that groups like the Direct Action Network were publicly talking about shutting the whole conference down -- Joiner explained that city officials and the SPD had negotiated with church groups, the AFL-CIO, the People for Fair Trade, and even Ruckus, a group that had been training protesters in tactics like rappelling. "Man, what planet is Joiner on?" asks one 11-year SPD veteran. "All you had to do was look on the Internet, and you'd know what was coming. You think the guys from Ruckus are going to tell us, 'Yeah, we're going to shut your city down?'"
Another SPD veteran close to the trainings, who wished to remain anonymous, adds, "We've been pimped the whole way. They were making deals with the protesters and gave away our power to do anything."
Before the conference even began, the situation was out of control. Large numbers of anti-WTO protesters had started gathering in front of and on the blocks around the Convention Center, in some cases blocking the way of delegates, and some knocked out windows in the downtown shopping district. A bewildered police force wondered what to do. Officers looked for guidance -- especially regarding whether to use tear gas on the growing crowds -- but police leaders, including Joiner (who was supposed to make the call on whether to use tear gas), were nowhere to be found, officers told The Stranger. On top of that, officers had been told to show up for duty at 7:00 a.m., when protesters had arrived much earlier. "People say we failed to regain control [on Tuesday, November 30]," says Proudfoot. "We never had control!" Joiner was not available for comment.
Unable to reach Joiner and ill-equipped in numbers and training to handle the surprisingly large group of protesters, officers say they were forced to make their own call. The police lobbed the first tear gas canister at 10:30 Tuesday morning, November 30, at Sixth and Union. They moved an armored truck into that intersection to further disperse the crowd. And the battle was on.
Thousands of mostly peaceful demonstrators had gathered at different locations around downtown. And tens of thousands more were on their way, as part of a giant AFL-CIO labor march. Governor Gary Locke phoned Schell at this point and offered the help of the National Guard. Schell turned him down. Days after the debacle, an officer would voice a common criticism: "If we had had more people from State Patrol, more people from King County, more people from the outlying areas, we might have been ready." Instead, the local police were completely overwhelmed, and, say critics, they overreacted.
At 3:00 p.m., there was a standoff between police and protesters at Fourth and Pike, where demonstrators started a bonfire in a trash bin. Police fired off canisters of pepper spray and tear gas, which only escalated tensions. Riot control expert and ex-LAPD lieutenant Anthony Alba says he was surprised to see so many officers with tear gas equipment. Normally, he says, just a few are trained and have the "cannons": "I've never seen a number of them like they had. It seems like there was a lot of tear gas." Protesters responded by throwing bottles, sticks, and fireworks. A half hour later, Schell finally took Locke up on his offer for assistance and declared a civil emergency. He also imposed a 7:00 p.m. curfew for a wide area surrounding the Convention Center.
Throughout the week, police were donning Robo-Cop-style riot gear -- helmets with face shields, military-style vests, "hockey" leg pads, hand protection, and long riot sticks -- that made it very difficult to hear commands and even more difficult to see. (It's also worth noting that except for a postage-stamp-sized emblem on the helmets, riot uniforms were suspiciously lacking in identifying badge numbers or names. Though this fact would seem to offer cops carte blanche to do as they pleased, Stamper claimed the officers didn't need to be identified because they were "operating as a unit.") Officers were working long hours and deprived of hot meals (local restaurants finally picked up the slack and brought out food) and bathroom breaks. "We were working 16-hour days, getting four or five hours of sleep and going right back in," says one officer. "What were they thinking? I'm surprised there weren't more people hurt."
This weary force was then sent into what would become the most explosive incident during the conference: a late-night battle on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, December 1. Hundreds of demonstrators had gathered at Broadway and East Harrison Street -- some of whom had been unwisely pushed from downtown into this residential neighborhood by police. With smaller numbers of people to contend with, police and the National Guard responded en masse in a purposeful show of force. They shot off round after round of pepper spray and tear gas, and made many arrests. Says one cop, "On the second day we could send a message. 'Hey, if you violate the law, you're going to jail.'"
By declaring a civil emergency, Schell had given police wide latitude. Though most demonstrators were peaceful, people who made the wrong moves (kicking over a trash can, standing in the wrong spot) were sent to jail by the busload, more than 500 in all. Police, clearly emboldened, started derisively calling them the "Seattle 500." Some were brutalized, including the now-famous man with his hands up who was kicked in the groin and shot at close range with rubber bullets by a charging cop in full riot gear. Says one officer, among the many who were in heated confrontations with protesters all day, "You've got the same guy in your face over and over again and what happens? Of course you want to shove him."
Edgy police were definitely shoving on that Wednesday night, especially after a cop van had been struck with a trash can and rocked by a swarm of protesters earlier in the evening. There was also a chilling rumor circulating that the crowd was planning to take over the East Precinct at Twelfth and Pine. Ridiculous or not, the rumor held currency because in 1991, during the Rodney King riots, police were kept from dispersing angry crowds at the precinct and were pelted with rocks. So on this night, as police and protesters jockeyed for turf just a block from the precinct, the police were terrified. "I've never felt that kind of fear in my 14 years on the force," declared one officer who was there. "That was life and death."
Again, leadership was lacking. The highest-ranking officer on the scene, say cops who were there, was a captain from the East Precinct. Proudfoot says Joiner was conspicuously absent, as was Stamper. "It's 1:00 a.m. and still nobody was there," says Proudfoot. As all of Seattle watched the city turn into a war zone, King County Council Member Brian Derdowski, City Council Member Richard Conlin, and City Council Member-elect Judy Nicastro showed up to negotiate and end the standoff. Nicastro and Conlin were rebuffed by police, but Derdowski was a bit more successful in quelling tensions. The situation finally came to a close at 1:50 a.m. as crowds sang "Silent Night" and the cops fired off a final round of tear gas.
After Wednesday, December 1, police declined to use tear gas or show the kind of force they had on Capitol Hill. And they tried to convince the public that their actions had been necessary, thanks to a gang of face-mask-wearing teenage anarchists from Oregon. Even as Stamper resigns and claims to take full responsibility for the riots, he points the finger at rogue protesters: "[We] were dealing with the wild card of demonstrators... who [were] not playing by the rules," he told the press. But that logic likely won't hold up as the Seattle City Council investigates the department's secret WTO "security plan," as the ACLU and the National Lawyers' Guild collect complaints of brutality, and as police officers threaten to file lawsuits against the department. While it's not entirely clear whether additional heads will roll over police missteps during the WTO conference, it's certain that harsh scrutiny will continue to fall on Schell and Joiner.