Seattle's `Thin Blue Line' faces a new age of protest

LAST year, at the height of events surrounding the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle, the International Association of Chiefs of Police referred Fox News to me for comment on the police response. Almost immediately, the reporter asked a series of questions which showed he had already interviewed someone close to the Seattle situation.

His predisposition about what tactics should have been followed prompted me to ask a question or two of my own. The most revealing answer indicated he was calling from New York City and was drawing comparisons between NYPD tactics and those of the Seattle Police Department.

After noting that there were more than 40,000 sworn personnel in the NYPD compared to 1,200 within the Seattle department, the interview shifted to the advantages in crowd control where large numbers of uniformed personnel can be continuously introduced into an event.

First, it is important to remember the repeated restraint individual police officers showed in the face of continuous provocation while being sent on "mission impossible."

For those who experienced the Vietnam protest era, it was gut wrenching. In the end, the police prevailed by being "The Thin Blue Line" That is, the demarcation line police officers occupy between the rule of law and anarchy. Restoring order in this setting is almost always unpleasant to witness.

The policing family gave individual Seattle officers high marks last year for exercising visible restraint in what was a new and largely uncharted experience for them personally. They showed the same discipline this year with only a small fraction of the crowd numbers as compared to 1999. However, as so often is the irony in these events, SPD suffered a mindless casualty when an officer was struck in the eye by a projectile.

Thirty years ago, in the midst of the Kent State tragedy which galvanized the U of W campus, a Times reporter commented that "Something good could come from something bad." That adage applies today to Seattle. As a residual from WTO experiences, there now remains a professional benchmark against which SPD officers can be judged, and used to respond to unfair criticism.

Unless you have been there, outnumbered and surrounded by a hostile mob, it is hard to imagine the emotions that race through these public servants. When they show good faith and carry out their duties in these difficult settings they deserve our informed gratitude and respect. There is also the need for public officials, the media and citizens to be better informed of the differences between crowd management, crowd control, mob behavior and rioting, where lives are lost and massive property destruction occurs.

Restoring order is never a pretty sight, but the alternative is worse and more maddening for those who suffer the randomness of it all. Just as major universities learned from campus unrest in the Vietnam era, cities across America should be profiting from Seattle's experiences.

Seattle did not experience a riot where lives are lost and massive arson-fueled property distruction occurred. This was not Los Angeles. What is so maddening was the looting and mindless property destruction caught on film and tape. Events of a year ago were a wakeup call, even to cities such as Washington, D.C.

In times of public unrest, America needs to remind itself that it is the only country in the world that has chosen the decentralized policing model. Of the 16,000 police agencies in the United States, over 80 percent have 25 or fewer sworn personnel. This figure alone speaks volumes of the complexities associated with mutual aid between so many jurisdictions.

The Columbine High School mutual aid response in Colorado is an example of how difficult command and control issues can be. From month to month, agencies seldom work in an "all hands" situation. The use of the military in these settings is even more daunting.

Leaders such as University of Washington President Charles Odegaard established thresholds of campus behavior that would be tolerated against the continuum of a sustainable police presence. So too Seattle and other cities across our country need to become more sophisticated in recognizing the intricacies of maintaining order.

There is great need for clarity with which police are given unequivocal direction and operational authority. It is an individual community journey.

WTO produced a series of after-action reports which are showing their residual value. However, public safety in a constitutionally-guided society is in constant flux.

Too often those who would destroy our society use its civil rights to confound it. The information age has also brought with it Internet capabilities to both peacekeeper and protester never envisioned even a decade ago.

Seattle has at least two major advantages in meeting this challenge. The first is its long-standing sense of community. The second is to be found in the hundreds of professional peace officers who make up the Seattle Police Department, a department that is widely recognized as one of the most professional agencies in America.

Holding the Thin Blue Line is at best a risky proposition. While individual officers are to be praised for their valor, society should not place them in harm's way by failing to properly direct them in the proper execution of their duties. The decentralized policing model provides for greatly increased citizen control over the use of police powers. However, this approach also requires each community to take a more informed and involved role than would be required in state or national policing. How Seattle responds to future incidents will be a visible test of this theory.

Michael G. Shanahan is retired Chief, University of Washington Police Department. He served as chief from 1971 to 1995.