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From Dorner to Waco to MOVE Bombing, a Look at Growing Militarization of Domestic Policing

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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.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask Chief Stamper, on the—on this issue, you said 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 or—that we’ve had these devices used and have raised controversies. 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. And 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 15th, 1993, when that fire had just begun.

CORRESPONDENT, BONNIE: The fire has indeed engulfed the vast majority of this compound that has been the site—

CORRESPONDENT, MIKE: Bonnie, the entire roof is gone.

CORRESPONDENT, BONNIE: The entire roof is gone, Mike.


CORRESPONDENT, BONNIE: What else can you tell us? Any sign of firefighting equipment? I know that—

CORRESPONDENT, MIKE: No, none whatsoever. And there is our shot from, you’ll remember, Bonnie, what we referred to as the farm cam. That’s 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.

CORRESPONDENT, BONNIE: Also, within the past 10 days, past week, federal authorities surrounded the compound, very close to the compound, to—with razor sharp concertina wire to prevent people from running out. That may, in this case, prove to be hazardous.

CORRESPONDENT, MIKE: Still no sign of anyone coming out, Bonnie.

CORRESPONDENT, BONNIE: Mike, at this point, the latest figures we have is that there are 95 people inside; of them, 17 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 tear gas, 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 some 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’re cased in paper or soft plastic. They are not known for starting fires. But what they can do is create great disorientation in the barricaded suspect. I’m surprised that that particular technology was not used. And I think it’s 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: Yeah. 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. I mean, in this case, where you have an actual—you know, somebody who has already killed a lot of people, certainly I don’t think anyone would object to the flash grenades. But they are used pretty frequently in, you know, drug raids, people suspected of nonviolent crimes. And 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—there are these particular high-profile incidents. I don’t know—Chief Stamper could probably answer better than I could how often they’re used, you know, day to day. I would imagine that it’s only—you know, usually in situations like this, where you have people holed up, you know, or barricade-type situations. But actually, yeah, Chief Stamper might be able to answer that better than I could.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we give an example. Just we have a clip. A well-known example of police using incendiary devices on people under siege is 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 founded 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. You know, 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 had 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. And not long after that, it got very, very hot in the house, and the smoke was getting thicker. At first we thought it was tear gas. But as it got thicker, it became clear that this wasn’t tear gas, that this was something else. And then we could hear the trees outside of our house crackling and realized that 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 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—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. And we were later told that the MOVE members had attempted to shoot their way out through the back of the house and were—and that there was an exchange of gunfire between police and the MOVE members. But it took a commission report later on to—an independent commission, to report that in fact that 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 someone 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’s been a longstanding shift in North America and Europe towards 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’s been a big push since the end of the Cold War by the big defense and security and IT 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 in Pakistan and elsewhere, as sort of a domestic policing technology.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Stephen Graham. His book, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbananism. Radley Balko, you—if you could further comment on this, because that is the subject of your upcoming book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, and also talk about the police actions leading up to the ultimate fire and the killing of Dorner.

RADLEY BALKO: Yeah, I think that the militarization—you know, I think it 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 1990s. But really, in the 2000s, we started seeing it being used more routinely on patrols, and we also see it—and this what I think is really disturbing—we’re 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 know, 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’ve entered a kind of scary new territory.

The other thing I wanted to mention a little bit here is, the reaction of LAPD after, you know, an officer went down is sort of typical of what we’ve seen in a lot of these cases where—when a police officer goes down, there’s kind of a mentality—and I think this also goes back to the sort of warrior mindset that we’ve 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, and so now they can, you know, sort of run roughshod over civil rights, because, you know, this is—now we’ve sort of entered new territory.

And we saw this in, you know, the last couple weeks, when we saw two separate incidents where police officers opened fire on vehicles that actually didn’t even look like the truck that Dorner was supposed to be driving. They were just sort of vaguely similar to the truck. In one case, you know, the police officers filled an entire neighborhood with bullets. They found bullets in trees and garage doors and front doors, in addition to the pockmarked truck that we saw pictures of. And I think this is—you know, we see this mentality is reinforced in TV and movies, and it’s this idea that, you know, once a police officer goes down, once somebody kills a police officer, everybody’s rights are suspended at that point until they take care of the problem. And that’s a—that is a 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, where he wrote, quote, “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 Rodney King incidents have since [been] promoted to supervisor, commanders, and command staff, and executive positions.” He went on to vow to, quote, “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’m wondering your take on this.

RADLEY BALKO: Well, yeah. I mean, I guess I should say, first of all, that, you know, it’s 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 to your cause. I mean, you know, not only did he take out vigilante justice against police officers, he also killed two people who, you know, their only alleged crime in his mind was being related to a police officer. So, you know, I think we should point out that this guy isn’t and should [not] be a martyr.

But, you know, the problems that he points out have been present in LAPD a long time, going back to the commission that issued a study before the Rodney King riots in the early 1990s. And, yeah, I mean, this is—he does raise issues. I mean, 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—and I hope Chief Stamper will correct me if I’m assuming too much here, but it’s sort of well known that when you get out of the academy and you’re assigned to a field training officer, that’s sort of a time when you’re tested, when you’re tested to see, you know, how much you can be relied upon to defend your fellow officers. Sort of it’s the kind of induction period into the blue code of silence. So, even that incident, you know, sort of rings true.

You know, I think it’s 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 deserve some credit. They’ve 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: Sure. 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’s one thing for police chiefs and sheriffs to denounce racism, to announce that there will be no tolerance of that kind of behavior. It’s 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 needed 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. And thanks to Radley Balko, senior writer, investigative reporter for The Huffington Post. His book is coming out in July, called Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. When we come back, we’re going to look at President Obama’s announcement during the State of the Union address looking into the voting process and the electoral system in this country. We’ll be joined by the head of the NAACP, Ben Jealous. Stay with us.

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