clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Seattle's former police chief speaks out on Ferguson and police militarization

Police in Ferguson, Missouri
Police in Ferguson, Missouri
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Norman Stamper spent 34 years as a cop, including as the chief of police for Seattle, a job he left one year after the city's police drew international attention for their heavy-handed response to 1999 anti-WTO protests. Now he speaks and writes often about police issues, including the militarization of American police forces, which believes was one of the causes of Seattle's 1999 violence — and now is a major contributor to the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Stamper is also on the advisory board of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which advocates for improvements in drug policy.

I spoke with Stamper about the dangerous implications of America's police militarization, what's happening Ferguson, and more.

Amanda Taub: I was hoping to find out a little bit more about your reflections on the police response that was used in Seattle around the 1999 WTO protests, and how you think those kind of insights could apply to what's happening in Ferguson.

Norman Stamper: What happened in Seattle in 1999 was a police overreaction, which I presided over. It was the worst mistake of my career. We used chemical agents, a euphemism for tear gas, against nonviolent and essentially nonthreatening protesters. The natural consequence of which are that we were the catalyst for heightened tension and conflict rather than peacekeepers, or for that matter even peacemakers. It's a lesson, unfortunately, that American law enforcement in general has not learned.

AT: What do you think a preferable course would have been in Seattle, and how would those lessons apply to Ferguson?

NS: From a distance, and without having interviewed anyone in Ferguson or talked with anyone on it, just relying on media reports, I would have to characterize the police response as an overreaction. Had you set out to make matters worse, you couldn't have done a better job.

I'm just very, very disappointed and troubled that lessons that we learned in Seattle have not been embraced by American law enforcement in general, by these police departments that are facing mistrust and distrust in their communities in particular. If anything, the police in America belong to the people, not the other way around. As such, they have a responsibility to forge what I would call an authentic partnership with the community where they reject unilateral decision-making. One partner in a partnership just simply does not make unilateral or arbitrary decisions.

Now there's an exception to that. The exception is where you have an active shooter, where you have a barricaded suspect, where the situation really does call for the military-like response. Those are situations where you don't hold a seminar. You don't do telephonic polling, you take action, and it had better be decisive action or somebody's likely to get hurt or killed. There are those situations that come up in police work. They are far less frequent in occurrence than one would imagine.

Most times you have the luxury of time, but I fear that what's happened over the course of the last 10, 15 years, certainly with the advent of the drug war 40-plus years ago, and then in the aftermath of September 11, we have the police taking, increasingly, a military response to a wide variety of situations, and making matters much worse in the process.

AT: Are there specific things that you've seen police in Ferguson do that you think would be escalating the situation rather than defusing it?

NS: Yes. There's a real place for dogs in police work, but it is not in the context of a nonviolent protest. In fact, using dogs for crowd control is operationally, substantively, and from an image point-of-view just about the worst thing you can do.

We should have learned that lesson as an institution back in the ‘60s in this country. When [Birmingham, Alabama, public safety commissioner] Bull Conner unleashed his police dogs on nonviolent civil rights demonstrators, he was essentially saying to those peacefully protesting Americans, "You are the enemy."

Tracking suspects, looking for a missing juvenile, occasionally dealing with a violent suspect, it really does make sense, but it does not make sense at all under these circumstances [in Ferguson]. It's a throwback to an earlier era, and it's a real setback, I think, not just for the image of policing, but for those who are generally committed to forging constructive relationships with the communities that are served by law enforcement.

AT: Are there other tactics that you think were a mistake?

NS: I'm simply not close enough to it. All of my impressions are just that — they are impressions drawn from what I've read and heard. Other than images of nonviolent protesters with dogs straining at their leashes, and attempting to control a crowd, that's been my image of what I've seen.

I would also say that if you're not collaborating with the community in advance of these situations, if you're not forging joint policy-making and decision-making, then you're essentially distancing yourself from the community. You’re isolating yourself from the community when you need to be joining with that community and carving out guidelines or rules of constructive engagement, rather than escalating the potential for and the reality of violence in that relationship.

AT: One thing that has surprised me, looking at some of these images, is what seems to be a really widespread use of rifles. That police are not just out in force with rifles kind of hanging at their side, but that they're actually holding them and pointing them at people.

NS: More likely than not, what you're looking at are the so-called rubber bullets that are fired from what appear to be military rifles. You may be looking at that beanbag technology.

I think it's so important to hold those kinds of weapons in reserve, and use them or show them only when you're dealing with a violent confrontation. Keeping the peace at a demonstration essentially means having police officers in standard everyday uniforms not military garb.

Police approach a protester in Ferguson (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It means doing everything they can to demonstrate the de-escalation tactics and techniques, and not allowing themselves to get hooked emotionally. That requires not just sound policies and procedures and excellent training and supervision, it requires individual maturity on the part of every police officer.

It requires self-confidence — maybe even a dose of courage — to not overreact, but police officers who view themselves as in opposition to their communities have a tendency to view the community as the enemy. In the process they become an occupational force where they are in charge — in the name of control, in the name of public safety, taking actions that actually undermine legitimate control, is foolhardy at best.

AT: Can you talk a little bit about some of the de-escalation tactics that can be used for crowd control when the situation is not yet violent?

NS: First order of business is to make sure that you know, as a law enforcement agency, what your purpose is, and that is to de-escalate. In other words, your mission is not to provoke, it is to de-escalate. It is to ease tension, and if everyone knows that that's the mission that's a huge step forward — a huge advancement, frankly, over where we are in many law enforcement agencies.

It starts with that: what is our purpose? How do we want to be perceived, how do we want to look, and how do we want to act? Everybody within the police department needs to be singing from that same sheet of music, from the chief to the cop on the beat.

Then you want to be very sensitive to how you look. We were described as looking like ninja warriors in Seattle during the WTO [protests]. Now, I'm all for providing protective gear for police officers, and providing basic safety equipment to police officers, if the situation dictates it — using that safety gear. But we tried it out well in advance of what I consider to be a legitimate threat. Now the vast majority of demonstrators were nonviolent and nonthreatening.

Seattle police and protesters at the 1999 WTO summit (Jean-Louis Atlan/Paris Match via Getty Images)

That does not mean we didn't have individuals, anarchists by definition, engaged in tactics that were intended to be provocative, because certainly we saw that. If you've got policies and procedures and training and supervision, and individual self-discipline, then you've got the means to isolate that behavior and go after it.

There are many who say we were simply overrun in Seattle, that we didn't have nearly enough police officers on the street during WTO. There's a case to be made for that. I personally believe that's true, but we did overreact. Putting police officers out there in so-called soft uniform or their everyday working uniform is a huge step in the right direction towards de-escalation.

If they're out there in military gear from the beginning that's an act of provocation. We just simply need to use defusing techniques: they are listening, listening, listening. They are speaking softly, not screaming or shrieking or acting out of control.

When cops, just like other human beings, are frightened — and sometimes they are! — there's a tendency to act impulsively. Which is to say: to do exactly the opposite of what they need to be doing.

That's a function of training. That's on individual cops to be sure, but it's also on the organization itself. You should ask, have you trained your officers? Have you helped them develop psychological resilience and the kind of emotional hardiness that is necessary to keep cool and calm even in the face of provocation?

Good cops do know what to do if they are physically threatened, or other innocent citizens are physically threatened. They have a responsibility to meet physical force with force, but not to overreact in anticipation. In a false anticipation of a physical confrontation, they can actually provoke the confrontation. Then they've made a huge mistake strategically and tactically, and one that costs them the trust and support and respect of the community.

Good police officers understand that they need to be hearing what is actually being said, listening actively to the concerns the grievances of the community, paraphrasing it and feeding it back, and saying okay, now what can we do jointly to address these problems? It's a function of collaboration. It's a function of a specific set of skills, and a body of knowledge, and a set of defusing or de-escalation techniques. Good police academies teach it, and they reinforce it constantly.

This is what we need to be doing on a daily basis within law enforcement. It's reasonable to ask where is supervision both in reinforcement of those principles of de-escalation, and reinforcement and enforcement. Holding people accountable for escalating tension is a vital supervisory responsibility. Unfortunately, many supervisors are not trained in that, and the culture tends to reward action. The culture tends to reward decisiveness, and, dare I say, a macho tendency that is so counterproductive. It doesn't mean being soft. It doesn't mean being touchy feely, what it does mean is being sensitive to the situation you're facing, and behaving as a mature and responsible and dignified law enforcement officer.

AT: One of the things that I've been reporting is how much heavy military equipment is being distributed to police departments from the federal government, through the 1033 program and other similar programs, and there doesn't seem to be any accompanying training or oversight that comes with that. I'm trying to get a sense of how the training priorities would need to be for that equipment to be used safely, and whether that's within the capability of small police departments.

NS: Well the first order of business is to ask whether there is a purpose, a domestic law enforcement purpose, for much of that equipment. Often times the answer, if we're going to ask and answer that question honestly, is no. There simply is not. There is a time and a place for military grade equipment in police work.

I responded to the McDonald's massacre in 1984 as a chief officer in San Diego. Twenty people shot and killed, and the shooter still firing on his fellow citizens and killing children and women and men seemingly at will. Now, had we had an armored personnel carrier rather than a slot sharpshooter many, many yards away, we could have driven that armored vehicle up to, and maybe through the door of the McDonald's, and taken James Huberty out in a way that would have reduced the carnage. That simply didn't happen, because we didn't have that equipment. We eventually did use a sniper who took him out, but maybe we could have saved lives had we had that equipment.

Tear gas hangs in the air over police in Ferguson (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

San Diego's a big urban police department. A strong case can be made for having that equipment, for having specialty trained SWAT officers, and for ensuring that they're carefully selected, that they are thoroughly trained, and retrained routinely. When we start parceling out that kind of equipment to small rural law enforcement agencies with no training, with no maintenance responsibility, we're adding to the culpability of at least two if not three levels of government. That would be the feds for doing it in the first place, and the local jurisdictions for receiving it without the concurrent or concomitance training and policies and procedures and inspections and maintenance schedules and the like.

The one thing I would say is to reserve SWAT, reserve that equipment and those tactics for active shooter cases, barricaded suspects, armed and dangerous barricaded suspects with hostages. Do not employ those tactics, that equipment on routine drug raids or warrants service, or any other situation where you don't have what I would consider to be inherently dangerous circumstances.

AT: Would you include crowd control as an inherently dangerous circumstance?

NS: I would not. How often do we hear of political, social upheaval, the demonstrations that accompany the questioning and the concerns about police behavior, that have individuals who are armed within the crowd? If you don't have that, there is no justification I think for the kind of equipment that we're talking about.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.