Law and disorder

Will city government ignore the lessons from police abuse during the WTO?

SEATTLE RESIDENTS seem to have two mutually exclusive views as to "what went wrong" during the World Trade Organization's meetings last fall. Some are concerned we lost control of the streets, and others think we lost control of the cops. So far, city government seems more concerned about the streets.

Last week's release of the Seattle Police Department's report on the WTO was as notable for what it excluded as for what it said. While the report was sharply self-critical of planning leading up to the week, it made no mention, even as an exceptional occurrence, of possible civil rights violations. Nor did it address the fact that hundreds of protesters and bystanders were arrested on December 1.

Indeed, the WTO review report singled out officer performance—of all agencies, not just SPD—as one of the week's few strengths: "The discipline and restraint showed by officers demonstrated the high quality, strength, and training of our regional law enforcement officers."

Also notably missing from the review was any admission that the cops simply didn't listen. Although the report angled for repeal of the city's law prohibiting surveillance of political groups, citing it as an impediment to information-gathering on the protests, there was no acknowledgment that the main body of direct-action protesters told the police, city officials, and the media ahead of time exactly what they planned to do: shut the WTO down by gridlocking the streets. Nobody believed them. The police didn't need to gather information so much as to treat it credibly.

What was included in the report, however, makes for compelling enough reading. It's a story of failure to plan for worst-case scenarios combined with a lack of resources necessary to do the job. On November 30, the major day of protests, police were badly outnumbered and badly disorganized. That admission from the police themselves will color all of the remaining examinations of what went wrong.

Four of those examinations are unfolding in the City Council. The official council investigation, headed up by City Council member Jim Compton, is divided into three separate panels, led by himself (the week's events) and his colleagues Jan Drago (how the WTO bid was won) and Nick Licata (advance planning). Unsuccessful council candidate Alec Fisken has been hired to coordinate the 13-person staff of the investigation (nine for cataloging documents). "We are only information gatherers and researchers for the three panels," explains Fisken. "We've concentrated initially on gathering, reading, and cataloging documents. We've just started interviewing."

The probe, weeks behind schedule but still slated to conclude by the end of June, has been dogged by criticism over structure and scope. Critics felt outside investigators independent of city government politics should have led the probe. A fourth panel to examine civil rights abuses was scuttled when City Council member Peter Steinbrueck pulled out as panel chair, citing constraints in time, range, and resources that he felt made the panel's mission impossible. The civil rights arena was folded into Compton's panel, but without any examination of individual abuses.

Mark Taylor Canfield of the Capitol Hill Community Council reels off the complaints of many who have followed the council's investigation: staff disarray, changed meetings, a bad Web site, lack of accessibility, and failure to investigate "civil rights violations, assaults by police officers, and violation of the First, Second, Fourth, and Eighth Amendments." Canfield wonders aloud, "I don't understand why they don't have the staff to do these things."

Steinbrueck, for his part, has convened his own "study group" to look at other cities' policies on protests and civil unrest. According to Steinbrueck, "It's more of a legislative effort; my goal is go make some meaningful legislative changes. I don't need to wait until the conclusion of the Compton investigation; I think we've identified some key areas for change."

Steinbrueck's proposed changes include:

*"Tightening up" the definition of emergency powers and orders by placing limits on the mayor's authority.

*Establishing parameters, such as the restrictions on pepper spray use recently enacted in Eugene, on the use of chemical weapons. "We should look at an outright ban on certain chemical weapons," comments Steinbrueck.

*Much better and more specific forms of crowd control, including better training and a manual for using "less lethal" weaponry.

*Ensuring that police ID is visible at all times. "I feel there needs to be a civil penalty for failure to wear your badge," Steinbrueck says.

These, however, are only one council member's ideas. He'll need five votes to turn any of them into law. Given the current makeup of the city council, that seems highly unlikely.

It's too bad: Steinbrueck's changes would go a long way toward mollifying the citizens who heaped 18 hours of enraged antipolice testimony on the City Council last December—testimony that may become irrelevant to city government's conclusions. The momentum, in the mainstream press and among city officials, seems to be toward viewing the WTO experience as a law enforcement problem. As the city moves toward picking a new police chief, finalizing contract negotiations with the police guild, and enacting a new police accountability mechanism, the abuses of law enforcement authority that horrified a nation last fall and drew the wrath of Amnesty International are in danger of being forgotten.

 
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