The militarization of Seattle's police

Back in 1900 it was about pot bellies and billy clubs. Today, it's about treating people with respect.
Crosscut archive image.

A helmeted Seattle police officer models the new short jacket. All the rage in 1912.

Back in 1900 it was about pot bellies and billy clubs. Today, it's about treating people with respect.

The militarization of the police has been a hot topic around the country, especially post-Ferguson. Here in Seattle, it's been a concern for a long while, spurred by the police response at the WTO demonstrations in 1999, and more recently the department's desire to use drones. In recent weeks, activist-businessman Nick Hanauer had a Twitter nut-out over the possible militarization of King County sheriff's deputies after observing their SWAT team in action and describing it as "terrifying."

Hanauer's concerns reflect a long debate over how military-like the police should be, a debate which goes back to the very origins of metropolitan police departments. The fact is, police departments have been influenced by the military since the beginning. They adopted a military-style hierarchy, with commanders, majors, captains, etc. In the USA, their blue uniforms were influenced by 19th-century uniform styles, especially in the years right after the Civil War when many police forces began to wear surplus Union Army uniforms, specifically the blue frock coats with brass buttons.

Police officers used to wear civilian-style headgear — tops hats, stetsons. But by the late 19th century, they had switched to bobby-style helmets — think Keystone Cops — that were adapted from German military garb. Even the U.S. Army sported them for awhile; theirs had spikes on top. After World War I, Seattle police officers donned military-style visored hats.

In this country, as police departments were evolving in the late 19th century, officials struggled to find the line between civilian force and military occupation. People understood there was a kind of slippery slope in how departments took shape.

In 1910, The Seattle Times published a story entitled, "The Metamorphosis of the Cop," that looked at the issue. "The ideal is to have every force a Varangian Guard in soldierly activity and strength, but a civil body only in their relation to the public," the story noted. "Above all things, America shuns the spirit of militarism." In other words, we want professionals, not urban armies.

In the Progressive era of the early 1900s, some innovative police leaders recognized the importance of walking the civilian-military tightrope with care. One innovator was Richard Sylvester, chief of the Washington, D.C. police department in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sylvester wasn't a cop. He was a former journalist with administrative experience and he organized his metropolitan police force. Some credit him with popularizing the term "the third degree," which came to mean beating confessions out of suspects, but was also a reflection of a Masonic-like systemization of policing: First degree was arrest, second degree was transport of prisons, the third degree interrogation.

Sylvester also promoted physical fitness and training of officers. "We want just as much of the impressiveness, the dignity and the strength of the European policeman as we can get," he said, "and just as little of the idea that he is a special soldier to terrorize the civilian." (Sounds like what Nick Hanauer wants.)

Sylvester was contrasting the strong military cast of European police with the democratic spirit that pervaded America. "We want to make a soldier of him in efficiency when his services are required," said Sylvester, "and at the same time maintain his standing in the community as a civil officer."

This is a balance we are still struggling to achieve.

Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, who took a great deal of heat for his handling of WTO, was a longtime advocate of civilianizing police departments. As he discussed in his memoir, Breaking Rank, not only was he a fan of "community policing," he even once suggested that San Diego officers shed their uniforms for blue blazers.

That idea did not go over well: Police and civilians alike want officers to look like officers and carry the mantle of civil authority. They don't want members of the force to retreat behind advanced weaponry and body armor, but modern police do have to deal with the modern weaponry that criminals possess. Stamper has said that his main concern isn't an armed SWAT team so much as the way militarization creeps into the everyday lives and minds of police officers.

The turn-of-the-century cop with his tall helmet and handlebar mustache was not necessarily the physically fit specimen we're used to seeing today. The image of the cop as doughnut hound goes back a long way, partly because of the non-professional and undisciplined nature of early departments.

In 1900, The Seattle Times reported that Seattle's new police chief John Sullivan, concerned that there "were many officers who showed that they had perhaps lived too high and gave too much attention to their stomachs and not enough to their muscles," ordered all his officers to use the department's gym twice a week. That apparently didn't solve the problem. In 1912, when the SPD replaced the long frock coats with shorter blue jackets, one officer complained that while the short coats were more utilitarian, fat policemen presented a "ludicrous spectacle" with their coats inching up above their bellies.

The Times article echoes the notion of a common police image: "the good, fat, jolly fellow in blue, who snoozed against your lamp post and ate your provender…." Such a cop — call him "Casey" — was, said The Times, ripe to be made over by the discipline imposed by chiefs like Sylvester.

"They are going to pare him down, they are going to straighten up his back, they are going to train him as they train athletes and regular soldiers, and then they are going to show him to you again, a new man, a soldier cop." In 1910, militarization of the police meant improvements in their fitness and bearing through rigorous training. Sylvester, for example, had gymnasiums installed in each of his D.C. precincts.

Fitness served several purposes. But its main benefit, especially in the pre-and early motorized era, was that long hours spent on one's feet required stamina. In boomtown Seattle, an officer on foot patrol needed physical strength to subdue and haul in the troublemakers, a ragtag collection of loggers, fishermen, sailors, miners and other laborers, a lot of them drunk and disorderly. 

Bicycle officers, and we had them in 1900, had to pedal up Profanity Hill without the benefit of low gears or electric motors. Cops had to be good with their fists too; newspapers of the era are filled with accounts of officers battling suspects — and of suspects fighting back.

Back then, police did not necessarily lead with their weapons. They usually carried their pistols inside their long blue coats; clubs and saps were kept out of sight. The police of the early 20th century were not so heavily armed, and some innovative chiefs wanted it that way.

Perry D. Knapp, the chief of Toledo, Ohio, gained a national reputation for de-arming his officers and reducing crime. He took away their clubs and canes in order to, according to a glowing profile in a 1911 issue of The American Magazine, "express the majesty of the law, and … not mere threats of violence." Knapp also hired "sober, honest men who will not throw kindness and politeness to the winds just because a little authority is placed in their hands."

These are lessons that reformers are trying to cultivate here in Seattle where the police department is laboring under a federal mandate for reform and a reputation for excessive force. Rumor has it the SPD is about to undergo a major re-branding, with new uniforms, a new logo, repainted police vehicles, etc. under new chief Kathleen O'Toole. (A plan to trade patrol cars for SUVs was scotched a few years ago. A good thing since SUVs are a step away from “Officer friendly” mode.)

The challenge is to find that balance of "protect and serve" without seeming to become an arm of the Pentagon — despite whatever cheap hardware the military might make available.

That is, the police need to reconnect with the diverse and complex communities of their increasing diverse and complex cities. If Washington, D.C. chief Richard Sylvester wanted to drill his officers in physical fitness, in Toledo Knapp wanted to drill them in the Golden Rule. Boot camp meets Sunday school.

"Chief Knapp insists that the attitude of the policeman to the public has much to do with the public's attitude toward law and order," reported The American Magazine. Treat people with respect and you’ll get it back. Police departments are learning and re-learning that rule.

Dealing with criminals and serving on the frontline of social problems will always be a messy business. Back at the turn of the century, the militarization of the police meant imbuing the profession with strength and dignity. Combine that with Golden Rule values — do unto others — and you create a far more powerful weapon than any surplus military tank.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.