Embattled police chief resigns

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Published December 7, 1999

World Trade Organization (WTO)

Embattled police chief resigns

SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER Tuesday, December 7, 1999

By KIMBERLY A.C. WILSON

Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper says he is resigning and that he takes full responsibility for the riots that disrupted the World Trade Organization meeting and brought chaos to the city's streets.

Stamper sent a letter yesterday to Mayor Paul Schell announcing his decision to step down as head of the city's 1,800-member force at the end of March, ending his six-year tenure as chief. Schell accepted the resignation.

The move, Stamper said, is designed to "depoliticize" the chief's job as the City Council, American Civil Liberties Union and others prepare to investigate the department's actions during the WTO meeting.

"I think in making this announcement, I've taken my tenure off the table. I will be leaving the Seattle Police Department," he said in an exclusive interview with the Post-Intelligencer.

He said he will stay through March so that he can help investigators sort out how and why police lost control of the demonstrations and can speak freely in doing so.

"I think it's poor form to just walk away, especially at a time when we're involved in some intensive review of last week's experience," he said.

Stamper said he had made up his mind last month that he would announce his retirement in January. But the events of last week changed his timetable.

"The irony is that I'll be leaving (the chief's job) two months later than I expected to," he said during the 90-minute interview.

In accepting the chief's resignation, Schell called Stamper an effective but unpopular leader who was misunderstood by rank-and-file officers.

"I think he's been a great chief and I tried to talk him out of it. . . . He's a man of absolute integrity," Schell said last night. "Anybody who is a change agent faces the challenge of being effective but not necessarily popular. That comes at a price. But history (will) judge him with a kind eye."

Stamper's decision caps a scandal-filled year that began with allegations that a Seattle homicide detective stole $10,000 from a crime scene and culminated last week as outnumbered police officers fired tear gas, pepper spray and rubber pellets at WTO demonstrators in downtown streets.

Seattle police and law enforcement officials outside the department -- including King County Sheriff Dave Reichert -- complained bitterly that Stamper and Schell were not prepared to handle the thousands of protesters who descended on the city for the WTO meeting.

As a result, WTO delegates were placed at risk, the meeting was disrupted, violence spilled out of downtown into the residential Capitol Hill neighborhood, downtown businesses sustained more than $2 million in damage and the city's retail core lost millions more dollars from lost sales at the height of the Christmas shopping season.

On Wednesday night, police officers yanked Seattle City Councilman Richard McIver from his car as he tried to drive into a restricted area.

McIver, who is black, said the officers ignored his business card, and he said the incident highlights problems in how the department deals with people of color.

Moreover, police officers complained loudly and publicly that the failure to anticipate violence left their ranks so thin that they could not do their jobs. Many said they were dangerously tired while on the front lines for nearly 20 hours without food, backup support or enough tear gas and pepper spray.

"I certainly do accept full responsibility that our officers did not get all the support they needed and deserve," Stamper said. "As the chief, it's fundamentally important for people to understand that we knew this was going to be big. We knew that there was a potential for violence and destructive behavior."

Stamper acknowledged for the first time yesterday that the mayhem on Seattle's streets Tuesday nearly caused President Clinton to cancel his trip to the city to speak to WTO delegates.

"We all had a very serious conversation about whether all the venues the president would visit were secure," Stamper said.

Stamper, visibly relaxed and confident during the interview, denied that politics had played a role in tactical decisions for handling the protests.

But he acknowledged that the department -- and the city -- had tried to negotiate with the protesters rather than confront them.

He said Assistant Chief Ed Joiner directed the tactical response to demonstrators practicing civil disobedience while negotiating behind the scenes with protest group leaders.

"Some of the leaders of the various demonstration factions were not able to deliver," Stamper said. "In other words, they were dealing with the wild card of demonstrators who are not part of their particular group, and who are not playing by the rules."

Stamper said police faced squirt guns filled with urine, chunks of concrete and soda pop cans filled with gasoline.

"The anarchists used techniques downtown that they were trained for," Stamper said. "They integrated themselves into peaceful demonstrators. They made it very clear to us that if we were going to get to them, we were going to have to come through people who were not destructive and violent.

"One protest leader reported to us that he saw anarchists change clothes three times a day to avoid detection."

Stamper said the Seattle Police Department -- and police officers called in from King County and elsewhere -- were trained and prepared to handle unruly and even violent protests. But they just did not have the numbers to cope with tens of thousands of demonstrators.

Cities like New York, with nearly 40,000 officers, and Chicago, with 15,000 officers, "can pour two to three to four times the number of officers that we can into those venues for dignitary protection," he said.

Seattle could not match those forces. "Even with mutual aid, looking at the entire state of Washington, we're asking other law enforcement agencies to literally strip their streets."

The National Guard eventually sent in 300 unarmed troops and the Washington State Patrol sent another 300 armed troopers after the violence broke out Tuesday. But they did not arrive until Wednesday morning.

Schell said he was disappointed that Stamper was leaving under a cloud. The chief, he said, had hoped to walk away from the job after guiding the city successfully through the WTO and the arrival of the year 2000.

"But it's his life," Schell said. "And it's not going to be fun for the next six months."

Stamper said he was under no pressure from the mayor to announce his retirement earlier. He said he informed Deputy Mayor Maud Daudon of his intentions Saturday. She arranged a meeting Sunday with Schell.

"I said this is categorical, it's unequivocal," Stamper said. "Does this look like the face of somebody who's indecisive about his decision?

"I think I have a responsibility to stick around and answer questions about WTO. It's no secret that there are officers who believe that they didn't get as much support for this as they needed and deserved, and I want to hear any and all concerns and answer every question that I can. "But I also want to be a part of systematically critiquing and debriefing the WTO experience."

In Vancouver, B.C., where police employed similar means to curtail looting and violence during protests against the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum held there in 1997, public hearings into whether the police responded appropriately are still going on.

Second-guessing takes time, said Vancouver Police Department Inspector Ken Doern, a specialist in crowd control.

Outside of WTO, Stamper said he hopes his legacy will be his advocacy of community policing, a concept some officers resisted and some community members have misunderstood.

"Community policing is not a touchy-feely police strategy," the chief said yesterday with a tinge of frustration. "That kind of a term attached to policing or my leadership position is kind of evidence of lazy journalism.

"Community policing is very tough to pull off. . . . And when it works, it sets the stage for the next phase of community policing, which is a deeper and deeper commitment" to working closely with the community.

In Schell's three-paragraph letter accepting the chief's resignation, the mayor credited Stamper's community policing formula for plummeting crime rates. And he praised the chief's unwavering focus on improving the department's record of civil rights.

"Under your leadership, our police department and its citizen partners have accomplished a great deal," Schell said. "Crime is down. Ours is the best domestic violence response police force in the country. Citizen complaints are down by two-thirds in your six years.

"You stood firm against racism, sexism, and homophobia. Human rights are stronger in our department and across our community because of you."

Since he arrived in Seattle in February 1994 after having been executive assistant police chief for San Diego, Stamper has taken an active and visible role in Seattle's diverse neighborhoods.

He was a regular marcher in the annual Gay Pride Parade. He also met regularly with representatives of the city's minority communities and invited controversy by speaking frankly about his own experience as a rookie cop who witnessed and participated in police abuse of civil rights