Officer Safety Report: Some Seattle cops couldn't get to gear during N30

Seattle Post-Intelligencer Staff

SEATTLE - Some Seattle police officers claim they were put at risk during the WTO anniversary demonstrations when things suddenly turned ugly and they couldn''t get to riot gear stashed discreetly in vans.

Spurred by more than a hundred complaints, the Police Officers Guild is sending a three-page questionnaire to 1,200 rank-and-file officers asking them to assess how things went during "N30."

"They were concerned about access to the protective equipment; they were concerned that perhaps safety was taking a back seat to appearances," said Sgt. J.D. Miller, guild vice president.

Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has defended his decision to have officers wear their regular uniforms on Nov. 30. Only 24 officers started the day in full body armor -- and they were kept out of sight.

"The last thing you want to do is provoke a confrontation," Kerlikowske told KING-TV on Tuesday.

Kerlikowske consulted with other police departments, including Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Cincinnati, and all recommended using riot gear only if the crowd became aggressive.

"He had done quite a bit of research," said police spokesman Pam McCammon. "It was a pretty well-thought-out decision."

The anniversary protests were peaceful through much of the day, with about 2,500 demonstrators converging at Westlake Park. By dusk, however, the mood had changed. Anarchist flags began appearing in the crowd, and young people wearing face masks started throwing rocks and ball bearings at officers.

A police captain who was not in riot gear was struck in the head, suffering an eye injury.

When the confrontations began, many officers were allowed to switch into protective clothing and helmets. But not all had that protection, according to complaints received by the union.

One squad reportedly couldn''t get to their gear because it was in a van parked on the other side of an angry crowd.

And some officers said they were told to hold off changing into the protective gear because it would look too confrontational, Miller said.

"When it became a battle," he said, bicycle cops in standard-issue Gore-Tex clothing and foam helmets were still on the front lines.

But an ACLU spokesman defended the chief''s decision.

"It would have raised tensions because of what riot gear came to symbolize last year in people''s minds: the use of tear gas and other weapons against mostly peaceful people," said Doug Honig, education director for the ACLU of Washington.

Questions being asked of officers by the union include when they were allowed to don protective gear, how effectively commands trickled down to the front lines and whether policies restricting the use of tear gas jeopardized their safety.

After the protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999, officers complained that they lacked adequate equipment and training to deal with mass demonstrations. More than 500 people were arrested in a haze of tear gas during several days of riots.

The Police Department responded by spending about $130,000 to buy more protective gear.

Union leaders praised Kerlikowske yesterday for getting officers prepared for the anniversary demonstrations and putting more of them on crowd-control duty than his predecessor, Norm Stamper.

"That fact is not lost on us," Miller said. "He truly tried to support our folks."

The survey results and firsthand accounts of officers are expected to be passed on to the chief in early January.

Union leaders say they hope their findings will be included in the department''s "after-action" report on N30.

Kerlikowske did not return phone calls yesterday. He told KING-TV that he welcomes feedback from the union and would consider policy changes aimed at improving officer safety.

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