Former Seattle police chief criticizes treatment of Occupy protesters

Seattle police pepper spray demonstrators near the WTO conference in 1999. Photo courtesy of Steve Kaiser

Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, who led the controversial effort to subdue riots during the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999 and resigned in the aftermath, criticized the majority of police organizations that have dealt with protesters involved in the Occupy movement, the BBC News has reported.

“Law enforcement across the country is pursuing the same tactics that failed so miserably in Seattle,” Stamper told BBC. “There’s a lack of patience, there’s a lack of imagination and there are clear over-reactions to the challenges the police perceive. It is all so disheartening.”

In November 1999, an estimated 50,000 activists arrived in Seattle to protest globalization and air other concerns during the WTO talks. They blocked roads that delegates planned to use to reach the summit at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. The WTO cancelled the opening ceremonies and numerous initial events.

Seattle police, in an effort to clear a path, sprayed crowds with tear gas, and they also used pepper spray and other powerful chemical deterrents.

“After the tear gas, many previously non-violent demonstrators turned much more active, much more militant and in some cases violent in response to the violence they experienced,” Stamper told BBC. “We began getting major outbreaks of property damage and physical violence against the police officers, rocks, bottles and even human urine shot from high powered squirt guns.”

Stamper said he regretted the choice of tear gas. “We saw what looked and felt very much like a war zone over the next three days and in effect we started it.”

As the riots continued, National Guard soldiers arrived, and a harsh curfew was imposed. Stamper resigned in the next few days following the WTO conference, but it was only recently that he began to speak out against police departments’ response to riots.

“The cop in me had made that decision not to step in and stop it,” he said. “But as police chief, I should have done precisely that, and I will regret forever that I didn’t do it.”

After the events of Sep. 11, 2001, Stamper said that the police forces in the United States developed a military-like mindset to encourage strict security. “What we see now is even the tiniest rural police department dressed out in battle fatigues and SWAT uniforms, sometimes driving armored personal vehicles and making every marijuana bust a military operation,” he told BBC.

The Occupy protests can be a challenge for police to oversee and control. However, they must still be patient and able to negotiate with protesters to resolve conflicts in a civil manner, Stamper said.

“It is clearly an abuse of tear gas when it is used against passive demonstrators who are taking part in acts of civil disobedience which are such a rich part of our democracy,” he said. “We should recognize that we are a tool of community in the advancement of public safety and good. Police today have lost sight of their purpose.”

- Matthew Medina
News Editor