Since the formation of the Department of Homeland Security on November 25th, 2002 under the Presidency of George W. Bush, an unprecedented militarization and escalation of tactics in the US has taken place among police departments. From the arming of our police forces with armored personnel carriers to the frequent use of SWAT teams against unarmed and non-threatening protesters, a rash of police actions have swept the country that has led many activists, advocates, and citizens to ask: is this what our police force should be used for?
In no place is that escalation and use of heavy force more apparent than Seattle. The Seattle Police Department has a long history of excessive force in its actions, perhaps most notable by the slaying of John T. Williams, an indigenous woodcarver who was shot by Officer Ian Birk simply because he could not hear Birk’s order to stop.
Occupy Seattle has seen its share of extreme action, most famously in the case of Dorli Rainey, an 84-year old woman who waspepper-sprayed on November 15th, 2011 after complying with a police order to stand on a sidewalk. In other cases, police have used horses, flash-bang grenades, and physical assault in order to subdue peaceful protesters.
The Department of Justice has, since these incidents, issued a strongly worded letter to the Seattle Police Department for their abuses, specifically citing Occupy Seattle as a matter of interest in their investigation. The Department, under the auspices of Chief of Police John Diaz, has been recalcitrant in the wake of this admonishment and continues to refute the Federal Government’s attempts to rein in what appears to many to be a department which has gone out of control.
In 1999, a notorious riot exacerbated by police action took place in what has now been called the “Battle of Seattle.” The Chief of Police at that time was one Norm Stamper, who after his retirement has publicly stated he regretted his decisions during that action and now works tirelessly against police brutality. Thanks to the Occupy Seattle Media Team, I was able to schedule an interview with Stamper, in which we addressed the WTO riots of 1999, current uses of force in the SPD, and what he feels Chiefs like Diaz should keep in mind.
Ian Awesome: You were chief of police during one of the most notorious stateside clashes between police and protester in recent decades. What are you doing now and how has your tenure as chief of police in Seattle affected your current affairs?
Norm Stamper: It was during that event that I made the worst decision of my career, which was to permit the use of chemical agents on a non-violent, non-threatening crowd on 6th. We made that decision because we felt it was a necessity, but there was NO necessity for that decision, and I will regret that forever. That week is unfortunately considered my legacy.
I’m a writer, I do some public speaking, and I am mostly involved in drug policy reform and work for the abolition of the death penalty.
So what’s happened of course is that every time there is an anniversary for the Battle of Seattle, I’ll get a call asking me for my reflections on what happened in ‘99 and what I would have done differently. Of course, Occupy has really taken hold in this country and captured the imagination of so many people so I’ve been doing a lot of interviews on that as well.
IA: Occupy Seattle has frequently been the victim of heavy-handed tactics even though the recipients of those attacks were peaceably demonstrating or, in many cases, just sleeping. Do you think the current level of force (such as indiscriminate pepper-spray use, riding horses into crowds, punching, flashbang grenades, and use of SWAT teams) is appropriate to the actions of these demonstrators?
The remnants of a flashbang grenade used at our Port Action. Photo by Joseph H.
NS: There are times and circumstances when use of force is justified but, generally, there appears to be no justification of the use of chemical weapons and other methods of force. The iconic UC Davis video is a perfect example. These non-violent demonstrators were causing no harm to anyone, to include the police, and were sprayed in a manner that was almost cavalier. It was as if that officer was watering his roses!
In short, I think that there has been a massive overreaction across the country. My overarching opinion is that it is too much too soon and that it is exacerbating tensions between Occupy and police departments.
IA: You recently said on The Nation that the paramilitary bureaucracy today is worse than it was in the 1990s. Would you view incidents such as the use of SWAT teams to evict unarmed and peaceful Occupiers from buildings as a symptom of that increased sense of “protesters are the enemy?”
NS: You know, I do believe that in general there has been a major increase in the militarization of American law enforcement. We are seeing SWAT teams used for things that were not part of the designed purpose of SWAT teams. They were established to deal with hostages, bank robberies, heavily armed individuals, and often times domestic violence situations where someone is holding their partner at gunpoint. SWAT is a smart response to these problems. What’s happened is SWAT is now being employed for very low level drug offenses, on political protests and other situations.
SWAT operations can get people killed when used improperly, even though the purpose is to protect lives, to include the lives of alleged perpetrators. There is a problem in law enforcement today and that is scared cops! They have been erroneously conditioned to believe that the next person who answers a door they knock on is going to kill them. If that’s your mindset and orientation and your tools are SWAT, tragic outcomes are all but inevitable.
IA: Recently the Department of Justice soundly chastised the Seattle Police Department with Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez characterizing SPD’s practices to ensure trust with the community as “broken,” which Police Chief Diaz hotly denies. What would your response be were you in his position? Do you have a word of advice you would give to Chief of Police Diaz?
NS: Well, without being presumptuous, I would offer this view to any chief including Diaz. If you do not conceive of your police department as belonging to the community, then you have the wrong conception of policing a free and democratic society. I think it’s very important the police take the view that they are the junior partners of the communities they serve. If there’s a senior partner in that relationship it is the community by at least a ratio of 51/49, and that isn’t just the business community or blind supporters of the police department, but also critics and those who have been on the receiving end of oppressive police action.
Norm Stamper is just one voice among many calling for the demilitarization of our police forces. The question is, of course, will current federal leadership and individual police departments listen?