HAVANA TIMES – The fire that killed former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner on Tuesday has drawn comparisons to the deadly 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, and the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia. In Waco, federal agents denied for years they had used incendiary tear gas after a fire killed 76 people inside the compound. The MOVE bombing left six adults and five children dead.
We speak to former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper and Radley Balko, author of the forthcoming book, “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.”
AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper and Radley Balko, Huffington Post writer, author of the forthcoming, “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask Chief stamper, on this issue you say you have concerns about the use of these incendiary devices. Of course, this is not the first time in a major high-profile police action that we have had these devices used and have raised controversy. It was 20 years ago this year, in 1993, that the FBI used incendiary devices to end their siege of the Branch Davidian complex crisis in Waco. At the time, authorities claimed the cult members intentionally burned down the compound. I want to play a clip of CNN ’s live coverage from April 15, 1993 when that fire had just begun.
REPORTER: Engulfed the vast majority of this compound.
REPORTER: Bonnie, the entire roof is gone.
REPORTER: The entire roof is gone, Mike. What else can you tell us? Any sign of firefighting equipment?
REPORTER: No, none whatsoever. And there is our shot from — you’ll remember, Bonnie, what we referred to as the farm-cam — that is looking from the north side into the compound. Apparently, the north side is not involved yet, but, it appears the rest of the compound is filled with an orange fire and acrid black smoke.
REPORTER: Also, within the past 10 days, past week, federal authorities surrounded the compound, very close to the compound, with razor sharp concertina wire to prevent people from running out. That may, in this case, prove to be hazardous.
REPORTER: Still no sign of anyone coming out, Bonnie.
REPORTER: Mike, at this point, the latest figures we have is that there are 95 people inside, of them 17 or below the age of 10. A total of 25 below the age of 18.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was CNN coverage from 1993 of the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas. It was not until much later that federal authorities acknowledged they had used incendiary teargas, but they insisted they did not contribute to the fire that consumed the compound and left their leader, David Koresh, and 54 other adults and 28 children dead.
Chief Stamper, you’re familiar with other incidents around the country where these devices have been used. So there is a, pretty predictable, as you said, result of their use in terms of people who are holed up in a particular — or barricaded in a particular compound.
NORM STAMPER: Yes, I think if you think about the names applied to this particular weaponry — pyrotechnic, incendiary, burners — those all suggest that these devices do in fact start fires. The first thing I thought yesterday and certainly on Wednesday was Branch Davidian and the absolute necessity to learn from these experiences. SWAT officers typically have at their command the use of and frequently do employ so-called flash bangs or concussion grenades. They are cased in paper or soft plastic. They’re not known for starting fires. But what they can do is create great disorientation in the barricaded suspect. I am surprised that that particular technology was not used. And I think it is vital to understand that unless these officers knew for certain that there were no hostages in that cabin, that the use of the pyrotechnics is doubly questionable.
AMY GOODMAN: Radley Balko, can you give us the history of the use of these incendiary devices? They are, in fact, not used that much.
RADLEY BALKO: The incident in Waco, I guess, is the first one that comes to mind. Chief Stamper and I agree on a lot, but I would actually disagree with him on the flash grenades also — there are a number of fires that I have reported on and other people have reported on that were started by flash grenades as well. In this case, were you have an actual — somebody who already killed a lot of people, certainly, I don’t think anyone would object to the flash grenades. They are used pretty frequently in drug raids, people suspected of nonviolent crimes. In there, I think they become a little more problematic.
AMY GOODMAN: The history of them from Waco to MOVE.
RADLEY BALKO: The history of the tear gas?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, of the use of these incendiary devices.
RADLEY BALKO: Well, I mean there are these particular high-profile incidents. I don’t know — Chief Stamper could probably answer better than I could about how often they’re used day to day. I would imagine it is only — usually in situations like this where you have people holed up or barricade-type situations. Chief Stamper might be able to answer that better than I could.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t we give an example. We have a clip; a well-known example of police using incendiary devices on people under siege as the 1985 attack in Philadelphia that culminated in the helicopter bombing of the headquarters of the radical group known as MOVE. The fire from the attack killed six adults, five children, destroyed 65 homes, an entire neighborhood. Despite the two grand jury investigations and a commission finding top officials were grossly negligent, no one from Philadelphia government was criminally charged. MOVE was the Philadelphia-based radical movement that was dedicated to black liberation and a back to nature lifestyle. It was found by John Africa. All its members took on the surname Africa in 2010. Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor of the bombing, told DEMOCRACY NOW! what had happened as the bomb was dropped on her house.
RAMONA AFRICA: In terms of the bombing, after being attacked the way we were, first with four deluge hoses by the fire department, and then tons of tear gas, and then being shot at — the police admit to shooting over 10,000 rounds of bullets at us in the first 90 minutes — there was a lull. It was quiet for a little bit. And then without any warning at all, two members of the Philadelphia Police Department’s bomb squad got in a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter and flew over our home and dropped a satchel containing c4, a powerful military explosive that no municipal police department has. They have to get it from the federal government, from the FBI. And without any announcement or warning or anything, they dropped that bomb on the roof of our home. Now, at that point, we didn’t know exactly what they had done. We heard the loud explosion. The House kind of shook. But, it never entered my mind that they dropped a bomb on us. But, the bomb did in fact ignite a fire. Not long after that, it got very, very hot in the House and the smoke was getting thicker. At first we thought it was teargas. But as it got thicker, it became clear that this wasn’t tear gas but this was something else. And then we could hear the trees outside of our house crackling and realized our home was on fire. And we immediately tried to get our children, our animals, our dogs and cats, and ourselves out of that blazing inferno.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Ramona Africa describing the 1985 — the sole survivor of the 1985 police attack on the House of the radical group MOVE group in Philadelphia, that left six adults and five children dead. I was a reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News and I covered that particular event. And what amazed me in watching the fire unfold was that the fire department trucks arrived on the scene, but then for more than an hour, did not turn on their hoses as the house burned. We were later told the MOVE members had attempted to shoot their way out through the back of the House and there was an exchange of gunfire between police and MOVE members. But, it took a commission report later on, an independent commission, to report that in fact some of the members had actually been shot to death, killed as they came out of the burning house. I wanted to ask Chief Stamper, this whole issue of people trapped in these houses and a fire erupting as a result of police action, what the responsibility of the police is at that point when these fires erupt? Even though you may have a criminal or some one that you’re involved in a standoff with, your responsibility as a police officer to try to capture these folks alive if possible?
NORM STAMPER: Your number one responsibility is the protection and preservation of human life. And when we employ tactics of the type that we’ve been talking about this morning in order to achieve what has essentially transformed itself into a military or certainly military-like mission, when we escalate tension and escalate tactics that predictably lead to death, we have violated our most basic, indeed, our most profound responsibility, and that is the protection and preservation of human life.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a comment from Stephen Graham, whose book “Cities under siege: The New Military Urbanism” looks at the increasing influence of military technology on domestic police forces. He spoke to Democracy Now! in 2011.
STEPHEN GRAHAM: Well, there has been a longstanding shift in North America and Europe toward paramilitarized policing, using helicopter style systems, using infrared sensing, using really, really heavy militarized weaponry. That’s been longstanding fueled by the war on drugs and other sort of explicit campaigns. But, more recently, there has been a big push since the end of the Cold War by the big defense and security and I.T. companies to sell things like video surveillance systems, things like geographic mapping systems, and even more recently, drone systems that have been used in the assassination raids in Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere, as sort of a domestic policing technology.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Stephen Graham, his book, “Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbananism.” Radley Balko, if you could further comment on this, because that is the subject of your upcoming book, “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.” And also talk about the police actions leading up to the ultimate fire and the killing of Dorner.
RADLEY BALKO: I think that the militarization — I think was troubling enough when it was reserved for drug raids which is what it was mostly used for, these sorts of paramilitary tactics throughout the 1990’s. But, really, in the 2000’s we started seeing it being used more routinely on patrols and we also see it — and this what I think is really disturbing, we are seeing it used not because — not after an assessment of the threat that the police are facing, but to send a political message.
One example I would give is, you see these federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in states that have legalized the drug for medical purposes. I mean, nobody really thinks that these dispensaries are a threat to federal agents, that the people running them are going to pull out guns and open up on federal drug agents. The show of force is about sending a political message. And when the government is using force, and deciding how much force it wants to use based on politics and not a realistic assessment of the threat, I think we have entered kind of a scary new territory.
The other thing I wanted to mention a little bit here is the reaction of the LAPD after an officer went down is sort of typical of what we have seen in a lot of these cases where, when a police officer goes down, there is kind of a mentality — and I think this goes back to the warrior mindset that we have inculcated in too many police departments — but when an officer goes down, there is this mentality that all bets are off, that the police no longer have to abide by the rules, that one of their own went down, so now they can sort of run roughshod over civil rights because now we have sort of entered new territory.
We saw this in the last couple weeks when we saw two separate incidents where we saw police officers open fire on vehicles that actually did not even look like the truck that Dorner was supposed to be driving. They were vaguely similar to the truck. In one case, the police officers filled an entire neighborhood with bullets — they found bullets in trees and garage doors and front doors, in addition to the pock-marked truck that we saw pictures of. And I think this is — we see this mentality reinforced in TV and movies, and it is this idea that once a police officer goes down, once someone kills a police officer, everybody’s rights are suspended at that point until they take care of the problem. That is really kind of a battlefield mentality that I think is the result of this militarization.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And of course, the issue that Dorner in his warped way attempted to raise, of continuing racism within some of these police departments, clearly — I want to read an excerpt of the manifesto that Dorner posted online when he wrote, “I know I will be vilified by the LAPD and the media. Unfortunately, this is a necessary evil that I do not enjoy but must partake and complete for substantial change to occur within the LAPD and reclaim my name. The department has not changed since the Rampart and Rodney King days. It has gotten worse… The consent decree should never have been lifted. The only thing that has evolved from the consent decree is those officers involved in the Rampart scandal and the Rodney King incidents have since been promoted to supervisor, commanders, and command staff, and executive positions.” He went on to vow to, “bring unconventional and asymmetrical warfare to those in the LAPD uniform. So, clearly, this was a man who was taking extreme and criminal actions, but at the same time, was raising issues that resonate, not only in many black communities, but even among black officers in many urban police departments. I am wondering your take on this.
RADLEY BALKO: I guess I should say, first of all, it is really unfortunate that there are people who have sort of tried to make Dorner into a martyr. I think if you’re going to make him a martyr for your cause, you’re really doing a disservice for your cause. Not only did he take out vigilante justice against police officers, he also killed two people who, their only alleged crime in his mind was been related to a police officer. I think we should point out this guy isn’t and should be a martyr.
The problems that he points out have been present in the LAPD a long time, going back to the commission that issued a study before the Rodney King riots in the early 1990’s, and, yes, he does raise issues. Even the initial incident that got him fired where he reported his field training officer kicking a suspect while the suspect was on the ground, I mean, it’s sort of well known in police departments that when rookies — I hope chief stamper will correct me if I am assuming too much — it is sort of well known when you get out of the academy and you’re assigned to a field training officer, that is sort of a time when you are tested to see how much you can be relied upon to defend your fellow officers. It’s kind of the induction period to the blue code of silence. So, even that incident sort of rings true. I think it is unfortunate that it took a crazy person to get these issues back in the light again. But, actually, I do think that the L.A. police chief and the LAPD deserves some credit. They have actually said they are going to go back and look at these incidents and see if there’s any merit to them, which is a pretty admirable thing to say given what was going on at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Norm Stamper, what you want to see come out of this as a former police chief yourself in terms of investigations?
NORM STAMPER: Clearly, we have to look at the tactics from the beginning of this entire operation to its tragic conclusion. But, we also, I think really need to look at systemic instances of racism and other forms of discriminatory or bigoted behavior. It is one thing for police chiefs and sheriffs to denounce racism, to announce that there will be no tolerance of that kind of behavior, it is another to actually affect the working culture of police officers. The majority of whom, I think, have gotten the message. But, there are still pockets in every police department that are very pernicious and very troubling and they need to be rooted out. There are some people who should not be police officers.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Chief Norm Stamper is the former police chief of Seattle, he’s the author of, “Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing.” Thanks to Radley Balko, senior writer, investigative reporter for the Huffington Post whose book is coming out in July called, “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.”
(*) See this program on Democracy Now!