Seattle Siege: Learning From the Chaos

At about seven a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 1999, Seattle police officers and city employees were setting up barriers they hoped would hold back thousands of World Trade Organization (WTO) protesters they knew were coming.

As one officer close to the incident said: "This is what happens when your command structure and city management do not plan ahead and refuse to pay attention to known negative intelligence."

At about 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 1999, Seattle police officers and city employees were setting up barriers they hoped would hold back thousands of World Trade Organization (WTO) protesters they knew were coming.  Their first line of defense was a "web construction type" of black fencing.  The second line of defense was a tightly parked row of commuter buses lined up in an "L" shape around the Paramount Theater, at Ninth and Pine.

The safety measures-two lines of rather passive defense-were in place to protect the scheduled 10 a.m. opening ceremonies for the hundreds of delegates and other public officials from more than 135 countries.

At the very same time, thousands of demonstrators were also getting ready to begin their week of protests. Both the city and protestor activities were being reported LIVE on local television stations.  The four-day conference was scheduled was scheduled to take place at the Seattle Convention Center, which is located just about one block south of the Paramount Theater. 

The so-called "safety measures"—feeble at best and woefully inadequate for what was to follow—never held.

By the time order was restored later in the week after some of the worst rioting on American soil in recent memory, several assisting agencies had taken matters into their own hands, bypassing paralyzed, impotent Seattle city and police department leadership at the very top in order to quell the violence.

Many have said it was a miracle that no officers or civilians were killed.


It was common knowledge in the Northwest law enforcement community that the WTO would not only bring protests, but violence as well.  Legitimate protestors had been in contact and negotiations with Seattle city and Seattle police officials for months in advance of the conference.  Seattle had been promised a peaceful march on Tuesday, the first day of the conference, by labor groups, Earth First, Farm Workers and other protest groups.

Assistant Police Chief Ed Joiner in pre-WTO media briefings, stated that he knew of reports of 100,000 protestors bringing havoc and destruction to the conference.  His response to the information was: "Quite frankly, I don't put a lot of stock in it."

The Direct Action Network (DAN) was involved in the organizing of the protest. Organizers went public with their intentions several months in advance of the conference. North of Seattle, near Marysville, they had set up a training camp for the protesters coming in from all over the nation.  In September 1999, they invited the media to watch repelling practice, and showed how protesters planned to lock themselves together. Their intention was very clear: to shut down the WTO.

In June of 1999, a group known as the Anarchists or the Black Block, whose trademark is wearing black or other dark clothing, and ski masks or scarves, had a virtual rehearsal in their hometown of Eugene, Ore. The Eugene riots were in protest of planned trade talks in London, England.

POLICE did some research about the WTO and found that the June conference in London, resulted in not only protests, bit also riots. The same disruptions occurred at the conference before that and the one prior to that.

The research wasn't difficult; the information was even posted on the Internet.

Many agencies throughout the Northwest were in training for possible problems related to Y2K. Agencies had formed Mobile Field Force Teams or Riot and Crowd Control Teams. According to King County Deputy John Urquhart, aide to King County Sheriff Dave Reichart, "Our role was as backup, not as a joint operation with Seattle. We were preparing for the need of our assistance, even though they had not requested it."

Pierce (PCSD) and Snohomish (SCSO) Counties, immediately south and north of the Seattle/King County Metro area, and many other agencies in the region did the same as the KCSO. To that end, offers of assistance and inquiries went to the leadership of the city of Seattle and the Seattle Police Department (SPD), through formal and informal channels.

Seattle Police Officer Jeff Geoghagen, currently assigned as an academy instructor, had firsthand knowledge. He told POLICE, "My brother is a Snohomish County Deputy on the Civil Disturbance Unit; they offered help and were turned down."

Seattle told agencies that their direct assistance would not be needed to control the crowds. Even when presented with the intelligence and information that problems would occur, it appeared that Seattle leadership was choosing to ignore it, instead telling agencies that they had assurances that there would be no violence. The city chose only to train with the Washington State Patrol, who would be responsible for security of Interstate 5, which runs under the Seattle Convention Center and the on-and offramps within the city.

Some other agencies did have specific venues assigned, such as Boeing Field where a dinner was planned. Initially the King County Sheriff's Office (KCSO) and the city of Tukwila Police Department (TPD) shared that responsibility. KCSO's Deputy Urquhart said that periodically they would get together with Seattle and compare notes. "But we never actually trained together," he added.

Several other area law enforcement, fore and emergency management agencies confided that Seattle was not talking about their plans. The final sign that there was trouble ahead came on Monday, Nov. 28, 1999. In downtown Seattle, a planned march broke into a mob scene that required a mass response by law enforcement. A pre-protest so to speak, included some violence and property damage.

Given the WTO's history, the information given to Seattle, and planning with the demonstrators, Seattle's leaders still did not see fit to ask for help, even one day in advance. Some law enforcement officers who are also in the Washington National Guard have told POLICE that they were given advance warning to be on alert as they may be called up to help Seattle. However, the Guard was not put on actual standby.

There is no question, that for reasons only known to Seattle, officials there chose not to call on available resources until after things had turned ugly.

Plans Gone Awry

Within a very short time on Tuesday morning, the "fencing" was down and protesters were standing and jumping atop the line of buses at the Paramount Theater. While Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and Police Chief Norm Stamper went on local television telling the public that they had the situation under control, in reality, prior to and while doing the news briefing, Seattle had sent out a statewide call for immediate assistance from other agencies.

Meanwhile, the mayor had been told by the Secret Service that the situation was too unstable. They were unwilling to allow the Secretary of State Madeline Albright to be moved from her hotel to the ceremonies.

The scheduled opening ceremony on Tuesday was a total failure. Very few of the delegates actually made it through the mob of protesters to attend it. Many delegates felt it unsafe to leave their hotels, while others, who did try to make it to the theater, literally had to fight their way through the crowds.

At the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Seattle, plainclothes King County Sheriff's deputies were involved in fistfights with protesters who were trying to stop delegates on their way to the opening ceremonies. The officers called out for priority aid saying, "We are being overrun," said King County Deputy Urquhart.[PAGEBREAK]

The confrontation at the hotel happened between 7 and 7:30 a.m. Tuesday. Because of orders from the mayor and chief, Seattle officers on the line, for the most part, were not allowed to help the delegates.  Seattle's primary plan was to allow protesters to block the intersections, then make mass arrests.  Later SPD officials told the media that they had been "misled" by the protesters.

By the end of that first day, the Secret Service told Seattle officials to gain control or they might cancel President Clinton's scheduled visit.

With that, Mayor Schell declared a state of emergency in the city on Tuesday at 5 p.m. This allowed him to impose a curfew, receive help from the Washington National Guard and establish no-protest zones.

But earlier in the day he declined an offer to call up the National Guard.

Planning, Logistics and Deployment

In an effort to learn what went right and what went wrong, POLICE spoke with several officers and command staff from various agencies, including the Seattle Police Department. All told POLICE their reason for speaking out is not to criticize, but instead to share what had been learned.

Pierce County Sheriff's Department's (PCSD) Major Tom Miner, South Hill Precinct Commander, was in the Seattle Police Operations Center for three days during the incident. He was able to point out some things he though created some of the problems that came up during the week of the WTO. Major Miner is well known as a proponent of the Incident Command System (ICS) and an expert in the field. He is responsible for one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) teams that responded to the Oklahoma City bombing, as well as many other natural and manmade disasters.

"There were too many command posts, decisions and problems that were not being communicated well or efficiently," said Miner. "There was little if any preplanning for general logistics."

He said it was very evident that there had not been adequate planning for the violent nature of some of the protesters and that the general intelligence seemed to have been ignored. "The plan was too demonstrator friendly, it allowed room for protesters to abuse officers and cause unnecessary property damage."

KCSO Sgt. Noel Fryberger agreed with Miner. Fryberger, originally at Boeing Field, said he had to hastily move his platoon to help in downtown Seattle. "We were told we were going in to make symbolic arrests."

But that didn't happen as they were thrown directly into the fray.  "Logistics were very bad and SPD needed a contingency plan, a plan for the proper use of additional resources they called upon," Fryberger told POLICE.

He went on to say that as a direct result of his department's planning and training, the sheriff's office came through the WTO well. KCSO eventually ended up sending in three Hard Platoons to help SPD, as well as various other deputies for general uses.

A "hard platoon" consisted of two squads of 15 deputies, two sergeants and a captain. Fryberger did say that you are going up against 30,000 people," but the fact that King County had done considerable realistic training in crowd control and less-lethal force "helped significantly."

Seattle Police Officer Kyle Kizzier, a fiver-year veteran, added that the first day-Tuesday-they were badly outnumbered. About logistics, he said, "The first day we were given perishable food, with no place to store it, no plan was in place for portable radio battery replacement, and the rules kept changing.

"It was frustrating." When given the food they were told, "this is it, take care of it." Kizzier went on to say that at his particular location, in front of a condo, the citizens were very helpful, allowing officers to come in to the building for very short breaks later in the day. That was when they discovered much of their food had gone bad. Officer Kizzier said he believed they could have used more training.

"We needed more drills.  Most officers that worked on the line only received minimal training," Kizzier told POLICE. "SPD did not take the protests and what might happen seriously enough."

At one point, a protester contacted him and told him they were ready to be arrested, telling him protesters planned on several hundred being taken into custody. He told his sergeant, but the word came back to not make arrests. Officer Todd Novisedlak's shift started at around 3 a.m. at Seattle's South Precinct. He said when he arrived at work, basic riot gear was being handed out. He and his partner, along with about half of the other officers reporting to work, were being formed into a "soft platoon."

Novisedlak told POLICE, "We were told that we were going downtown to intercept some radicals at about 20 hotspots until about 6 a.m. (Tuesday), at which time we would be replaced by hard platoons."  By his definition, a soft platoon consisted of patrol officers and a hard platoon consisted of the higher level trained and better equipped officers.[PAGEBREAK]

He added that at 6 a.m. the physical demonstrations picked up. At around 7 a.m., they were no longer functioning as a "soft platoon."  His platoon, instead of being replaced, was to re-group for redeployment, instead of returning to his precinct for patrol.  He and his partner diverted to what turned out to be one of many priority assistance calls that day.

"We went to assist some East Precinct officers calling for help," said Novisedlak. While working the line, many demonstrators assaulted the officers, he said. "We had ball bearings, pieces of metal, and pachinko balls thrown and shot at us, and unknown powders and liquids were thrown on us." The officers suspected the liquid to be human urine.

Although not generally reported by the media, some of the protesters used slingshots to hurl items at the officers.

According to Novisedlak, around 3 p.m., "We received unofficial word to not expect to be relieved; this after being on the line for 12 hours without any real breaks, we had to buy our own water if we wanted something to drink."

When asked about the delegates he responded by saying, "It really tore us up to watch what happened to the delegates."

"On one hand, we knew we had to hold the line, but we weren't allowed to do our job. We could have broken ranks...delegates were terrified.

"The opportunity to escort delegates would not have defeated our presence."

Novisedlak said that around sundown, he started recognizing some of the "protesters" as gangbangers from the south end of Seattle. He also agreed with others: "We were on for 19 hours, there were no plans for portable batteries, we were forced to shut off our radios and alternate use to conserve the power.

"Communications in general were horrible."

Responding to questions from POLICE about preparation, SPD's Novisedlak said, "(it was) months in advance.

"Command staff showed us films of what to expect, then when it did happen, they tried to deny knowledge of what to expect.

"This is what happens when your command structure and city management do not plan ahead and refuse to pay attention to known negative intelligence."

Other PSD officers echoed Officers Kizzier's, Novisedlak's and Geoggan's comments and sentiments.

Rick Adamson, commander of the PCSD's SWAT Team, told POLICE that when his team first arrived as part of the 60 Deputy Mobile Field Force (MFF). "Seattle wanted us to break up in small teams to staff various posts." He and the MFF Commander Lt. Rob Masko refused, telling Seattle they were trained for civil disobedience and crowd control. The MFF could be broken into two groups of 30, but not smaller, he explained to Seattle command personnel. "SWAT functions with the MFF were armed arrest teams, officer rescue, chemical agents and less lethal force," Adamson told POLICE he conveyed to Seattle.

Because of their core setup, both Pierce and King County units were used for presidential protection at the Westin Hotel, as well as other details.

Asked about logistics, Adamson said, "the command and control system was unworkable," adding "there seemed to be an unwillingness at the command level to believe the intelligence assessments and a failure to plan for the worst-case scenario based on the intel."

Masko told POLICE that he had been assigned two SPD liaison officers for communication purposes. The SPD officers did not have the tactical frequencies being used by the SPD riot control teams. "Communications was very poor," he said. 

And according to SPD Officer Geoghagen, the problems extended beyond the downtown areas.

"Eighteen recruits and I were sent to help process arrestees at the holding area," adding that even with the additional staff, the facility was terribly understaffed.

"The protesters were completely uncooperative; they locked arms and basically reenacted the downtown protests.

"If officers tried to take a protester for booking, they were swarmed by the mob."[PAGEBREAK]

Leadership Philosophies

It seemed clear to many during the first day of WTO, the philosophy of Seattle's leaders on how to handle the protests were different than that of the officers, as well as that of command personnel at some other law enforcement agencies.

Officer Mike Edwards, of the Seattle Police Guild, later said in a press release: "You can't run a tactical situation from a basement." His comments were in response to Mayor Schell and Chief Norm Stamper apologizing for the behavior of officers.

Chief Stamper attempted later to retract what he had said, claiming it was taken out of context. However he had already insulted his own officers and the damage was apparently done.

When KCSO Sheriff Reichart decided to commit his personnel to WTO early Tuesday morning, he did so after deciding to not allow protesters as much latitude as they had been given previously, according to King County Deputy Urquhart. In fact, Reichart was on the street with his people and was taped by a news camera crew chasing looters away from a store.  Sheriff Reichart received very high praise from all those involved from the field commander level to the street officer.

At one point, Seattle Mayor Schell publicly accused the sheriff of "staging" the foot chase. Sheriff Riechart did not. It was genuine police work, according to officers who were there. And on Dec. 12, 1999, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had an editorial cartoon. It depicted the Seattle mayor telling the sheriff: "This town ain't big enough for the both of us" and the sheriff responded by saying, "That's too bad mayor, where 'ya going?"  Clearly, the mayor had overstepped his bounds.

Sheriff Reichart received a standing ovation at a staging and rest area near the King Dome when he walked in on last day of the WTO. All of the King County deputies who spoke with POLICE-and there were many-said they felt fully supported and encouraged by their command staff.

The feeling was equally as strong among involved Pierce County deputies about their leadership. Sheriff Mark French told POLICE that he made sure his people did not have to tolerate lawlessness.

"Assuming it was otherwise safe to do so, and it was within the exclusion zone, then make the arrests," he said, adding, "I had every confidence that my officers would perform in a professional manner.

"I'm proud of our employees, how they conducted themselves and restrained themselves.

"It was an opportunity to put the Y2K training and preparation to use.  There is training value in these types of incidents regionally."

When asked about preparedness, he said that is up to each individual department to have a contingency plan in place.

At some point, field commanders from many of the assisting agencies realized they were not being adequately informed on current plans and incidents. They formed their own "informal command" so to speak, so they would at least be able to help each other, according to Det. Sgt. Scott Mielcarek, a team leader from PCSD's MFF.

Lessons Learned

Although the WTO conference didn't end like many in law enforcement may have wanted, it is a fact, to those involved and other police officers, that good things did come out of it.

"If you look back on the order of priorities, life safety, incident stabilization, and protection of property, then we succeeded," Seattle P.D. Capt. Jim Pugel told POLICE.

"There were no serious injuries to officers, delegates or protesters, and most importantly, no one went to the morgue."

Geoghagen agrees with Pugel. "In that respect it was a success, but it was more because of the resolve of the street officers at SPD and all the other agencies than a result of planning.

"They made it work."

Lt. Masko pointed out that as an MFF commander he learned that, "it is important to bring your own logistics people-not to expect immediate support from the requesting agency." He also said that it is important to have the equipment in advance of the incident. Not everything the MFF needed had been put in place at the time of callout. The items were brought together and issued to the team members, and the team was in Seattle within just a few hours.

Sgt. Jim Heishman is the senior team leader on PCSD's SWAT Team and a board member with the Washington State Tactical Officers Association (WSTOA).

Speaking with POLICE he said, "Recognize crowd dynamics, good training and equipment are key to success.  If you have those things, then as a team, you can pretty much do any mission well." He went on to say that a department's first priority should be to focus on training and equipment and to keep refreshed.

"There should be ongoing training. The basic equipment for a WTO-type incident should include a helmet (ballistic is preferred), chest protector, body shield, shin guards, protective leg pads, gas mask, ballistic vest, riot baton, and a jumpsuit.

And this from PCSD's Major Miner: "WTO is a classic example of why the Incident Command System (ICS) should be used.

"SPD was not able to expand or be flexible. It (this riot) also demonstrated a need to develop a statewide response plan for a multi-agency, multi-day event."

LAPD's Captain Mike Hillmann is the commanding officer for West Los Angeles. He is well known for his extensive experience in the areas of crowd control and civil disorder. With 33 years on LAPD, 14 of that in SWAT, Capt. Hillmann was instrumental in developing the Mobile Field Force concept for LAPD.

As to preparation, he told POLICE: "Training is everything. We need to think in advance of the event, look at possible target locations and dates, plan and prepare for them." He went on to say "we are seeing the '60s again.

"Law enforcement agencies would be well-advised to pay attention to what is happening nationwide.

"Look at the tactics of the protesters, look at your own procedures, look for pre-incident indicators such as controversy, race or gender issues, abortion rights, environmental issues and national elections."

He supported Heishman's comment that training and preparation are everything, adding that "skills are perishable."

"There is no hard intelligence," said Capt. Hillmann. "Look at information from open sources; look at the situation and the group(s) overtly."

Final Comments

When asked for final comments, KCSO's Sgt. Fryberger said, "The whole incident brought the teams and regional law enforcement in general closer together."

And this from Off. Novisedlak: "(I) extend my thanks and kudos to every officer and agency, to include fire who came together and helped under less-than-ideal circumstances.

"It reaffirmed my belief in the thin blue line and that we really are all members of an extended family."

As to his own agency, Novisedlak said, "SPD officers showed extreme professionalism (and) this doesn't happen because an assistant chief gives a 15-minute speech while training in a warehouse."

Seattle Officer Kizzier told POLICE, "The feeling of pride and unity is overwhelming. Being involved in this and performing the way we did made me proud to be a Seattle police officer.

"Seeing all the other officers from the other agencies was the best feeling in the world."

POLICE also spoke with Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association. She said the conservative estimate for damage to downtown businesses over the course of the week was about $2.5 million, and the loss of sale revenues were estimated to be about $10 million. But from her perspective "the officers were behaving with incredible restraint and professionalism under conditions of extreme provocation.

"We are proud of our police."

She also said "the physical damage began to be cleaned up immediately by the community and city employees, even before being asked." Her feeling about those four days? "Irony, I saw the best and worst of Seattle."

Maybe the best won.

Editor's Note: Sgt. Joseph Henderson, a Pierce County (Wash.) Sheriff's deputy, spent more than two months researching and writing this report. Much of that time was spent conducting interviews and attempting to get key involved principals to comment. It should be noted that neither the mayor nor former police chief of Seattle (Chief Stamper announced his resignation shortly after the riots) would talk with POLICE for this story. Additionally, we learned that confidential report was being prepared by private investigations firm for the City Council and the state at the city's request. Its release was scheduled for early March, shortly after our deadline. Every effort will be made to obtain this document and its contents evaluated for possible publication and analysis in POLICE to benefit the nation's law enforcement community. And, as developments warrant, other follow-up stories on Seattle's riots will follow.

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