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Seattle’s former police chief, mayor recall mistakes of WTO riots

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Seattle’s May Day mayhem of last year stirs memories of the “Battle in Seattle,” the WTO riots of 1999 that put Seattle in the national spotlight.

When he was asked for advice on crowd control, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper started with a disclaimer. “For an example of how not to do it, you can look at my own experience in 1999 with the World Trade Organization.”

The riots that marred the meeting of the WTO lasted days. Then-police chief Stamper said the city invested thousands of hours in training and thought they were ready. They were not.

“In short, we were overwhelmed,” said Stamper.

As officers tried to regain the upper hand in a crowd estimated at 50,000, Stamper conceded mistakes.

“The most glaring of which was a resort to chemical agents to deal with non-violent and at the moment non-threatening demonstrators,” he admitted.

Former mayor Paul Schell said police faced an almost impossible dilemma of allowing protest and protecting public safety.

“It is a really difficult choice that they have to make, on the spot and in many cases under very stressful circumstances.”

Police are wary of taking preemptive action against demonstrators but Stamper said you can’t just ignore people dressed in black.

“Particularly, when you see someone dressed that way and carrying sticks or pipes or bats or rocks, it’s time to separate them from that situation.”

If necessary, Stamper said officers should follow the suspected troublemakers wherever they go. Otherwise, Schell said anarchists will do their damage and then simply blend in with the peaceful demonstrators.

“They’re just misbehaving kids and when [anarchists] get inside of a crowd, doing what they have a right to do, a protest group, it makes it almost impossible for the police to do their job,” Schell said.

Stamper said police must enlist the support of Wednesday’s peaceful May Day protesters in Seattle.

“The vast majority of people who show up at a protest want to push an agenda, in this case, immigration reform,” said Stamper. “They don’t want their message drowned out.”

During WTO, in 1999, officers tried to keep the peace from within the crowd. Stamper said that didn’t work. “Do not blend into the woodwork, in other words make your presence known and felt.”

Stamper advised that troublemakers will try to incite trouble. Whatever happens, Stamper warned, police should not overreact to provocation.

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