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Ex-Seattle police chief: Occupy responses were too 'militaristic'

November 22, 2011 | 12:31 pm

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To the mounting public concern over heavy-handed crackdowns on Occupy protesters at UC Davis and Oakland, add a new voice: Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, who brought you the mother of all heavy-handed crackdowns at the World Trade Organization protests in 1999.

In an extraordinary article in the Nation, Stamper issues a big mea culpa for the massive street-cleaning that occurred when at least 40,000 anti-globalization protesters and labor union activists shut down the heart of the city during a WTO ministerial conference.

It was a template for all the street actions around the world that would come later and a recipe -- as Stamper admits now -- for how to make your friendly local police force look like an invading army.

Police wielding batons, tear gas, pepper spray, stun grenades and rubber bullets made more than 600 arrests, and the mayor imposed a curfew and a 50-block no-protest zone. By the time it was over, Seattle was treated to the sight of rows of riot-clad police marching in lockstep down deserted, gas-hazy streets, tapping their batons menacingly on their boots, as stunned citizens peered down from their windows.

(Full disclosure: This reporter was hit in the leg with a stun grenade, inhaled too much pepper spray to even remember, and might cling to a 12-year-old grudge.)

"My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose. Rocks, bottles and newspaper racks went flying. Windows were smashed, stores were looted, fires lighted; and more gas filled the streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging the conflict," writes Stamper, who before holding the chief's job was a senior police official in San Diego. He's now retired.

Stamper goes on to fault the militarization of police forces across America in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, as evidenced most recently, he says, in the heavy-handed crackdowns on Occupy protesters from New York to Atlanta.

"Everyday policing is characterized by a SWAT mentality, every other 911 call a military mission. What emerges is a picture of a vital public-safety institution perpetually at war with its own people," Stamper writes.

It's possible, he notes, to build a responsible, responsive network of civilian-dominated police forces, created by rank-and-file officers and community representatives. "But that will not happen unless, even as we cull 'bad apples' from our police forces, we recognize that the barrel itself is rotten."

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-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: Seattle police walk through clouds of tear gas from canisters lobbed at protesters on Dec. 1, 1999. Credit: Dan Krauss / Associated Press

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