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Former Seattle police chief: Learn from WTO protests

SEATTLE – The first thing Norm Stamper thought when he saw images of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of an unarmed black man was straight out of a folk song: “When will we ever learn?”

“My reaction was, ‘Please learn from my mistakes, from what I did and did not do during the week of WTO,’ ” said the former Seattle police chief, who presided over a law enforcement response to widespread demonstrations in 1999 that was vilified around the world for its heavy-handedness.

“Don’t tear gas nonviolent and not-threatening protesters,” Stamper continued. “And for God’s sake, don’t bring dogs out. … It’s a throwback to the ’60s and Bull Connor. The imagery sucks.”

Stamper knows whereof he speaks. Fifteen years ago, when the World Trade Organization met here, tens of thousands of people protesting economic globalization, including labor union activists, shut down the heart of Seattle’s city center.

The police response was swift, dramatic and iron-fisted. Officers wielded tear gas, batons, stun grenades and pepper spray. There were more than 600 arrests. The mayor called for a curfew and a 50-block no-protest zone. Law enforcement agents in riot gear marched through the city streets.

“The biggest mistake in my 34 years of law enforcement was that we used a military response to a domestic situation – a military tactic that was absolutely unnecessary,” Stamper said.

Explaining his reasoning at the time, he said: “It was the cop in me that supported my staff and believed that, if we needed to get emergency assistance to someone in medical distress, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.

“The cop in me should have been overruled by the chief in me,” Stamper said. “I blew it. The effect was to heighten tensions, not de-escalate tension.”

The parallels to Ferguson are painfully obvious. Days of demonstrations followed the Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson.

The largely white law enforcement officers in the predominantly black St. Louis suburb brought out tear gas, armored vehicles, police dogs, rubber bullets, riot gear and sharpshooters.

It wasn’t until Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon dispatched the State Highway Patrol on Thursday to take over security in Ferguson – population 21,000 – that the incendiary situation began to calm down. Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black and grew up in Ferguson, was tapped to lead the effort.

“My new hero is Ron Johnson,” Stamper said. “What he has done is textbook conflict management, conflict resolution.”

Stamper said that since the advent of the war on drugs, and particularly since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “police officers are looking more, sounding more, acting more like soldiers than domestic peacekeepers. … That translates into an occupational force.”

Los Angeles Times