When 30,000 demonstrators—mostly peaceful labor and environmental activists, but also a few vandals and self-proclaimed anarchists intent on destroying property—swept into Seattle at the end of November to protest a conference of the World Trade Organization, Seattle police were caught flat-footed. Instead of making sure that the protests remained orderly and the conference went on unimpeded, the cops let Seattle fall into near-anarchy, with demonstrators looting and rioting, blocking main roads, and trapping WTO officials in their hotel. After police had resorted to using rubber bullets and tear gas on unruly demonstrators, Mayor Paul Schell—ironically, a former Vietnam War protester—called out the National Guard to restore order. Law enforcement officials elsewhere in the nation ignore this spectacle—eerily reminiscent of the urban unrest of the 1960s and 70s—at their peril, as the subsequent resignation of Seattle's top cop, Norm Stamper, demonstrates. Urban security is a crucial responsibility of all big-city police forces.
Seattle police could learn a thing or two on urban security from the New York Police Department. With long experience policing large demonstrations, visits from foreign dignitaries, and huge events like New Year's Eve in Times Square, the NYPD is better equipped to deal with urban security than any other police force in America. The NYPD sets itself two goals in policing major demonstrations: protecting the public—including the demonstrators themselves—and guaranteeing protestors' right to free expression, always balanced against the rights of others to go about their business safely.
To achieve these two broad goals, five tactics have proven effective in New York. Seattle appears to have relied on none of them.
First, police should early on speak with protesters to establish the ground rules for demonstrations and the consequences if rules are broken. If cops have to explain things to demonstrators after protests begin, then it's already too late. Moreover, all cops—top chiefs especially—need to communicate fully with one another so that they know beforehand how to respond in a carefully calibrated way to events on the streets. If protestors fail to respond to the mere presence of police, cops should then issue clear, loud verbal warnings. Only as a last resort should they use force. That means, of course, that they need a graduated strategy to begin with: in Seattle, the police seemed to skip from passivity to naked force without any intervening steps.
Second, more important than outfitting officers with the menacing, Darth Vader-style riot helmets and tear gas, as in Seattle, is to deploy from the outset a sufficient number of police to keep demonstrations in line. They need to be deployed in the right places, so officers should sniff out potential trouble spots days in advance. In addition, police should have a reserve army of officers available to help out, if necessary, with crowd control or any unexpected emergencies that might crop up. When I was chief of department in the NYPD, for example, we had to police the UN's 50th anniversary in 1995—a security nightmare, with groups of protesters denouncing Fidel Castro's tyranny, the Chinese government's oppression of Tibet, and host of other nations' political abuses. We stationed a big reserve team of officers out of sight of the UN but close enough to intervene if needed.
Third, to prevent unruly crowds from tying up the city, police must establish "frozen zones"—spaces around major meeting halls, the perimeters of hotels, and key transportation intersections and corridors that keep the city moving. With the UN anniversary, we had to guarantee access to the UN building for 80 heads of state and representatives from more than 140 countries. We knew where all of them were staying and what route they'd be taking to the UN, and we had plans in place to keep those routes open.
Fourth, cops should be ready to disperse large crowds that threaten public safety. Police don't need to charge into a crowd to break it up, but simply to move through it at a deliberate pace, dividing it into smaller groups that can be shunted to side streets. A mix of foot officers, motorcycle cops, and mounted police usually does the trick. In 1994, we used just this method to disperse peacefully a crowd of 25,000 people, many roaring drunk, that spilled out of Madison Square Garden onto Seventh Avenue while celebrating the New York Rangers' Stanley Cup victory. Many cities have experienced riots after a home team wins a championship; not New York.
Finally, police should be prepared to arrest protesters who commit criminal acts, like the vandals who smashed the front window of a Seattle Starbucks coffee shop. They should even arrest passive resisters who refuse to move along after police warnings. Arrests can quickly cool down a simmering protest.
Had Seattle authorities followed these commonsense guidelines, they wouldn't have needed to call the National Guard. Urban disorder never would have broken out.