Militarizing Ferguson Cops With Riot Gear Is a Huge Mistake

National Guard and Seattle police arrest WTO protestors , November 1999
National Guard and Seattle police arrest WTO protestors , November 1999 Tim Matsui—Getty Images

As the former chief of Seattle police, I deeply regret tear-gassing WTO protesters in 1999. But police departments should—and still can—learn from what I did wrong

I retired as Seattle’s police chief shortly after I presided over a response to the 1999 WTO protests not unlike the police reaction in Ferguson, Missouri. In time, I came to believe my authorization to send in officers in riot gear and to use tear gas on protesters was the worst decision of my 34-year career as a cop.

Today, the entire institution of policing seems hell-bent on repeating my mistakes.

Many local law enforcement agencies are now outfitted and behave like small armies. This is not good, and the federal government shares much of the blame. With the advent of the drug war and especially since 9/11, the Department of Defense has been more than generous in gifts of surplus military items to the locals: armored personnel carriers, MRAPs (mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles), and a wide assortment of military weaponry.

The causes of the continuing unrest in Ferguson are many: the shooting death of an unarmed teenager, of course, along with persistent racial bigotry and discrimination, crushing poverty, failing schools, high unemployment… But it was the police department’s precipitous, militarized response last weekend that transformed peaceful vigils and protests into a siege of proportions never before seen in that St. Louis suburb.

That, and an abiding, preexisting condition of deep distrust of the city’s police officers.

Throughout the nation, in neighborhoods that have been historically neglected or oppressed by their police, the military mentality has exacerbated an already dreadful relationship. And it has all but destroyed “community policing,” a promising program that seeks to create authentic problem-solving partnerships between police and community.

We should not be surprised that officers of the Ferguson Police Department responded aggressively, militarily, to the original protests. It’s what cops do. They are conditioned to believe they are in control and that they must maintain that control, at all costs. They come to “own” the streets they patrol. The cop culture produces an attitude that, “We’re the police, and you’re not. We will decide what’s best for the community.” Even if it means hitting the family home of a suspected low-level, nonviolent drug offender with maximum military might, or using dogs for crowd control, or violating the civil liberties and human rights of fellow citizens.

Of course, at times, there is no substitute for military equipment and military-like tactics. Picture armed and barricaded suspects, school shootings, and other urgent, life-and-death situations. Make no mistake, America’s cities need carefully selected, well trained, highly self-disciplined police officers to confront these dangerous situations.

The problem comes when local law enforcement embraces militaristic tactics as its default position. Especially in situations, like Ferguson, where de-escalation efforts would have made infinitely better sense.

Picture Captain Ron Johnson standing before that bank of microphones at the beginning, not the end of the week. See him walking, in his everyday uniform, with protestors, smiling, hugging, saying, as he did in church yesterday, “You are my family…I am you.” A powerful statement in a town whose African-American population is 70 percent and whose police force of 53 numbers only three black cops.

Had Ferguson police responded with openness, had they listened and listened then listened some more, had they been as prompt and as forthcoming and thorough in their explanations as circumstances would allow, I am convinced that the peace of the community could have been maintained, its residents allowed to mourn the death of another young black man, even as they insisted on answers from their local police.

American policing, almost since its inception, has operated as a closed, paramilitary-bureaucratic institution. What we’re seeing on the streets of Ferguson is nothing new. We’ve seen it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the police response to labor, antiwar, civil rights, and campus demonstrations. What’s new is just how militaristic everyday policing has become in the early years of the twenty-first century.

But all is not lost. There are many ways to make police more responsible to the communities they serve. Let’s end the drug war that encourages the targeting of poor people, young people, people of color. Let’s flatten steep police hierarchies of power that discourage open and forthright communication within the ranks, and between the people and the police. Let’s invest civilian review boards with investigative and subpoena powers that allow them real oversight. Let’s insist on meaningful community representation in all aspects of police policy-making, program development, priority setting and crisis management.

And, most important, let’s encourage good people to go into policing. They can reform things from the inside and provide living exemplars of what good policing can be.


Norm Stamper was Seattle police chief from 1994-2000. He is the author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of American Policing and is an advisory board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

TIME Crime

These 4 Cities Show What Federal Intervention Could Look Like in Ferguson

Seattle police fire teargas and pellets at protesters outside the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, Washington on November 30, 1999.
Seattle police fire teargas and pellets at protesters outside the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, Washington on November 30, 1999. Andy Clark—Reuters

The Department of Justice has intervened in other cities in the past

In the wake of unrest in the city of Ferguson, Mo., the Department of Justice says it will investigate reports of excessive force by local police. The investigation is in its earliest stages, but the history of the federal government’s intervention in more than 20 cities over the past two decades provides an idea of what Washington’s approach to local police reform might look like if they find wrongdoing in the case.

In response to findings of police misconduct in the past, cities across the country have entered into agreements, called consent decrees, that have allowed the federal government to force police departments to enact policies that curb racial profiling, improper interrogation and illegal search and seizure, among other things. The exact terms and conditions vary in each case, and the deals are lifted only with the approval of a federal judge.

Here is a look at how federal intervention played out in four cities:


When Seattle cracked down on protestors at a World Trade Organization meeting in 1999 the world took notice. Just over a decade later, the city’s police found themselves facing more allegations of improper use of force, this time from the Justice Department. The city’s consent decree required the city to rethink its firearm policies. Officers were required to carry less dangerous weapons and to utilize “de-escalation techniques.”

Seattle police fire teargas and pellets at protesters outside the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, Washington on November 30, 1999. Andy Clark—Reuters

New Orleans

New Orleans, and its scandal-ridden local government, received attention for civilian deaths caused by police in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It also received an unusually far-reaching consent decree. A 2012 Department of Justice investigation found multiple cases of illegal use of force that resulted in death, inappropriate use of “uncontrollable” dogs to find suspects, discriminatory targeting of minorities for arrest, and other violations. The decree mandated extensive officer training, new supervision requirements and data collection to solve the issue. Recent reports suggest that the police department still has a way to go.

New Orleans Police subdue a man who refused to cooperate when he was asked to step out of his car and who was found to have a knife in the front seat, at the scene of a house fire in New Orleans East on July 6, 2006. Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

Los Angeles

In 2001, a decade after the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and the riots that followed, the Justice Department entered into a consent decree with the Los Angeles Police Department. The beating was one of many allegations of misconduct by the LAPD. A letter to then-Mayor James Hahn from a Justice Department official outlined a number of areas of concern, including the LAPD’s use of excessive force and false arrests. The letter also said that the department lacked procedures to deal with the issues. The consent decree required that department to collect data on police actions like firearm use and its response to cases of resisting arrest. Under the plan, supervisors were then instructed to monitor officers’ action and report potential policy violations. After more than a decade of federal oversight, the consent decree was lifted by a judge in 2013.

Video image of LA cops beating black motorist Rodney King as he lies on ground; taken by camcorder enthusiast George Holliday fr. window overlooking street. Charles Steiner—Image Works/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images


Federal involvement took a slightly different form in the city of Oakland. The city entered into a settlement with more than 100 plaintiffs in 2003 that mandated a number of police reforms. Ten years later the city acknowledged that it had failed to deliver on its end of the bargain and asked the federal government to help. A federal officer, whose powers included the ability to fire the chief of police, was appointed to oversee the department. The overseer also failed, and was removed by a federal judge this year.

Occupy demonstrators clash with Oakland police during May Day protest in Oakland, California on May 1, 2012. Stephen Lam—Reuters
TIME Crime

Seattle Thieves Steal $50,000 Worth of Pot By Cutting Hole in The Wall

Stuart Dee—Getty Images

Nice one, guys

You can’t fault the Seattle robbers who stole $50,000 worth of medical marijuana Wednesday for lack of creativity.

Local detectives reported that when they arrived at the scene of the crime—a dispensary “in the 5000 block of East Marginal Way South”—they found “a large hole cut into the side of the business and found marijuana strewn about.” The thieves may not get away with this cannabis caper for long though. The Seattle Police Department’s blog noted that detectives had recovered fingerprints, video surveillance, and other evidence from the scene.

Washington state is one of two states in the county, along with Colorado, where marijuana is legal for recreational purposes. As the commercial marijuana industry has grown, dispensary businesses have confronted safety fears because wariness by banks to involve themselves in a business still illegal under federal law forces pot businesses to resort to trafficking in large amounts of cash.

TIME Crime

Lone Seattle Police Officer Responsible for 80% of City’s Marijuana Citations

Seattle Police Chief
Seattle police chief Kathleen O'Toole salutes during a singing of the national anthem with Mayor Ed Murray at her side on June 23, 2014 Ken Lambert—AP

Cop in question reportedly issued 66 of 83 marijuana tickets handed out in the Emerald City during the first half of 2014

Seattle police chief Kathleen O’Toole has been forced to reassign an officer on her staff after the employee in question reportedly issued 80% of the city’s marijuana citations this year.

Officials are investigating the matter following the publication of the department’s first biannual report relating to marijuana enforcement, according to a statement released by O’Toole on Wednesday afternoon.

The Seattle Police Department report found that 66 of the 83 marijuana tickets issued this year was done so by a single officer, who at times would scribble peculiar notes in the margins of the citations in question.

“Some notes requested the attention of city attorney Peter Holmes and were addressed to ‘Petey Holmes,’” said O’Toole. “In another instance, the officer indicated he flipped a coin when contemplating which subject to cite.”

The police officer implicated in the incident has been taken off his regular patrol duties during the course of the investigation.

TIME viral

Grunge Gets The 8-Bit Treatment in This Music Video

It's 8-bit Kurt Cobain vs Donkey Kong


The YouTube channel Filthy Frackers have put together an animated medley of grunge’s greatest hits retrofitted to sound like the soundtrack to an old school NES video game. If you’ve ever imagined Nirvana as the soundtrack to Tetris, this could be your new favorite thing.

The chiptune compilation features game-ready takes on tracks by grunge heroes like Nirvana’s “In Bloom”, Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” and Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage”. There’s also a music filled with 8-bit Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots banging their digitized heads alongside Donkey Konkey and Super Mario, with plunger in hand.

The YouTubers have also put together a memorable version of “Hunger Strike”, featuring distraught 8-bit versions of Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell. But if you prefer your 8-bit soundtracks made by indie rockers (instead of your indie rockers turned into 8-bit soundtracks), check out The Advantage who have been releasing their own version of video game soundtracks for years, like this take on the “Castlevania” theme.

(h/t GrungeBook)

MORE: Radiohead’s Kid A and OK Computer, Now in 8-Bit

MORE: 8-Bit Don Draper: Mad Men, the Interactive Game

TIME Drones

Space Needle Guests Say Drone Crashed Into Window

Drone Enthusiasts
Similar drone design to that involved in the Space Needle incident. Ryan Lusher—Moment Editorial/Getty Images

There is no evidence to suggest Amazon’s drone delivery program has become sentient and gone rogue

Seattle’s iconic Space Needle looks to be completely undamaged after a small, white quadcopter drone operated by an Amazon employee may have crashed into an observation deck window Tuesday evening, police say.

Witnesses reported seeing an unmanned aerial vehicle buzzing around the Space Needle before “possibly” colliding with the structure, then zipping over to a nearby hotel room, they told police. The Seattle Police Department then contacted the resident of the room, who admitted to piloting the drone but said he merely approached, and did not collide with, the Space Needle.

The Amazon employee showed the police video of his drone flight, none of which suggested the drone actually hit the building. The video has been taken down from YouTube, but a few Vines posted by BuzzFeed have survived:

Commercial use of drones is generally prohibited in the United States while the Federal Aviation Administration works out how to integrate them into the national airspace. Flying drones recreationally, however, is allowed, though certain FAA rules and local laws apply. FAA guidance, for example, says recreational pilots should keep their aircraft below 400 feet above ground level and away from populated areas.

The Space Needle incident does not appear to have had anything to do with Amazon’s in-development drone delivery program.

TIME nation

First Recreational Marijuana Legally Sold in Seattle Donated to Museum

In this July 8, 2014, file photo, Deb Greene, 65, Cannabis City's first customer, displays her purchase of legal recreational marijuana at the store in Seattle. Elaine Thompson – AP

A marijuana milestone saved for posterity

The first marijuana sold for recreational purposes in Seattle is being donated to the city’s Museum of History and Industry, the Associated Press reports.

Deb Greene, a 65-year old grandmother, purchased it at the store Cannabis City on July 8, when the state’s first legal, recreational marijuana stores opened. The retiree brought “a chair, sleeping bag, food, water and a 930-page book” so she could camp out overnight and be the first in line, the AP reported at the time.

She purchased two bags of legal weed, one for personal use and another that was signed by Cannabis City owner, James Lathrop, so it could be “saved forever,” Greene told the Seattle Times. “You don’t use history.”

As Greene told the Puget Sound Business Journal, “I wanted to be a part of this, this is part of the history of our city.”

MORE: The Rules About Pot Just Changed in Washington D.C.

MORE: House Votes to Help Pot Businesses Use Banks


Man Tries to Kill a Spider and Ends Up Burning His House Down

Getty Images

And after all that, it's not even clear if the spider died

A man who apparently took the expression “kill it with fire” just a tad too literally caused his house to go up in flames after he attempted to kill a spider with a lighter and a can of spray paint.

He spotted the eight-legged intruder in the laundry room of his West Seattle home Tuesday evening and promptly went after it, local ABC affiliate KOMO reports. Firefighters arrived at the scene and eventually extinguished the blaze, but the fire had already caused significant damage. It will cost around $40,000 to repair the house and another $20,000 to repair or replace the items inside.

We’d like to take this opportunity to advise people to STOP DOING THIS. This keeps happening. Do not use fire to kill bugs. Don’t do it. Just say no.

You’re probably thinking, Well, at least the fire must have killed the spider! Ha-ha-ha! But no. Nobody can confirm if the spider survived or not. So basically, this spider could have gotten out alive and then watched the house burn from the safety of a nearby tree, probably petting a white cat and laughing maniacally.

TIME technology

Amazon Wants to Test-Fly Its New Delivery Drones

The online retail giant is moving toward its planned “Prime Air” drone delivery system


Amazon has formally asked regulators permission to test its controversial and much-hyped delivery drones in outdoor areas near Seattle. The move, made in a letter posted to the Federal Aviation Administration’s website Thursday, escalates an ongoing debate about the safety of commercial drones and privacy concerns associated with the technology. In its July 9 letter from Amazon’s head of global public policy Paul Misener, the company said drone delivery will one day be “as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today,” Reuters reports. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the company’s still-in-development “Prime Air” drone delivery service on the 60 Minutes television program last year but said it was still about five years away from actual implementation. The company has been conducting delivery drone test flights indoors and in other countries, but now Bezos wants to conduct tests in the open air, according to the letter. “Of course, Amazon would prefer to keep the focus, jobs and investment of this important research and development initiative in the United States,” the company said in its letter. The U.S. government has designated six sites where tests can be conducted for commercial drone applications—in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia—but such tests are currently prohibited in the Seattle area, where Amazon is based.


TIME Drugs

Photos: This is What the First Day of Legal Weed Looked Like in Washington

Lots of cash, long lines and big smiles marked the launch of the second legal, recreational marijuana market in the U.S. Here are more scenes from opening day of Washington state's experiment with over-the-counter weed.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,151 other followers