Safety Came First In Standoff -- Police Chief Defends Officers' Actions, Taking 11 Hours To Subdue Swordsman
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper today defended the actions of his officers in an 11-hour standoff with a sword-wielding man that disrupted traffic, shopping and business for thousands of people yesterday in downtown Seattle.
The man, Tony Allison, had been released from Western State Hospital nearly a year ago after a 10-year confinement.
"We were concerned with his safety, the safety of innocent bystanders and the safety of our officers as well," Stamper said today, explaining why more severe actions were not taken earlier to end the confrontation.
"This man proved to be remarkably tough and resilient," Stamper added. "He surprised all of us."
The incident, at Second Avenue and Pike Street, began around 11:15 a.m. yesterday after a patrol officer saw Allison wielding a sword at passersby. When Allison refused to surrender the weapon, the officer called for backup.
The ensuing confrontation, which didn't end until 10 p.m., created "a major inconvenience" for many people who missed appointments, child-care connections and other engagements, Stamper acknowledged this morning. Traffic was snarled and many workers found themselves stranded as their cars were stuck in a cordoned-off garage.
"I'm sure we'll be talking about that for a couple of days," he said. "But we'd be talking about it for a year or better if we'd shot and killed that man. He's in the hospital - not the morgue."
Assistant Chief Harv Ferguson added that officers faced a difficult job yesterday.
"People criticize us for being wimpy. They don't say we were being humane," Ferguson said. "But believe me, it's not that difficult to shoot somebody. It's more difficult to bring them in - even though they have wanted to get shot."
Police apparently have had at least one previous run-in with Allison. Last year it took three officers to subdue and arrest him, said Ferguson, adding he knew little else about the incident.
In trying to get Allison to give up his sword yesterday, officers negotiated through bullhorns, shot nonlethal projectiles at him, sprayed him with pepper spray and shined bright lights at him to make him as uncomfortable as possible.
The chief said officers believed time was their greatest ally because the man eventually would get cold, hungry, tired and give up. As the evening grew colder, officers also decided that making Allison wet - possibly bringing on hypothermia - could be a way of subduing him.
Large fans were aimed at Allison to compound the chilling effect of the water.
The standoff finally ended after Allison was sprayed with a fire hose and pinned to the sidewalk by several officers using a fire-department ladder. But even then, he retained a strong grip on the sword, Stamper said. A powerfully built man, Allison had been schooled in martial arts.
"I've never seen anything like it in my 30 years," said Ferguson. "I don't want to make an icon out the guy, but I simply had to marvel at his ability to withstand all of that."
Allison was subdued and taken to Harborview Medical Center.
Stamper said given that Allison is "very clearly mentally disturbed," he likely won't be charged with a crime, though he may be sent to a mental institution.
This morning, Western State Hospital director Dr. Jerry Dennis said Allison was committed to the hospital in May 1986 after pleading not guilty by reason of insanity to second-degree assault with intent to rape. Authorities reluctantly released him 11 months ago because he had served the maximum allowable time, and they no longer had a legal hold on him, Dennis said.
At the time of Allison's May 1996 release, Dennis said, "He was totally uncooperative with any discharge planning" or mental-health follow-up. Allison was on medication at the time of his discharge, Dennis added, "but it was clear he was not going to follow up with those."
The only alternative would have been to retain Allison under the civil-commitment law, Dennis said. But, he said, at the time, doctors felt Allison was not an immediate danger to others and therefore could not be committed.
This morning, Allison's ex-wife, April Allison of Puyallup, characterized him as obviously troubled but not violent.
"He has a very kind heart. He's never hurt anyone in his life," she said.
She said Allison had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and was seeing demons everywhere.
"I think he just reached a real breaking point. He couldn't handle it out there," she said, adding, "It was very scary for me to sit here and watch that."
They were married for two years in the late-1970s.
Yesterday, after police cordoned off the busy intersection for one block in all directions, much of downtown was paralyzed.
"Usually, they (stand offs) last only four or five hours," noted Ferguson. "This one happened to last much longer."
The desire to avoid injury kept downtown traffic jammed from about 11 a.m. to about 10 p.m., angering many drivers.
Mayor Norm Rice's office and the Police Department received many calls regarding the way police were handling the standoff. Most calls were critical.
Rice was in Washington, D.C., yesterday. But his administrative assistant, Rebecca Hale, said, "I don't know the exact number, but we did get quite a few calls. People were saying things like, `Why don't you just shoot him, and stop wasting our taxpayers' money.'
"Excuse me, but isn't a human life more important than somebody getting home from work on time? The cops are professionals, and I totally defer to SPD (Seattle Police Department) about how to handle the situation. As you'll recall, about 10 or 12 years ago a police officer was killed in a housing project here by a man with a sword."
On March 28, 1984, Robert Baldwin killed King County Police Officer Michael Raeburn with a sword when Raeburn served a notice evicting him from a Yesler Terrace apartment.
After a 17-hour standoff, a fatigued emergency-response team then stormed the unit. Baldwin died of 21 bullet wounds in his back.
The Police Department was severely criticized for its handling of the standoff and then sued by Baldwin's family for wrongful death.
During yesterday's incident, onlookers began to gather on the sidewalks, at windows, and along the roofs of flat buildings. Some viewers laughed, sipped lattes, and urged police to shoot the man, or drop a net over him.
People on rooftops and on the street cheered and whistled. Aid cars stood ready, and police personnel scurried around in bulletproof vests.
Jim Paffhausen, a Montana businessman, was in Seattle with his wife and friends to work and enjoy the city.
"It's worth the price of admission," he joked. "Our wives are shopping. This sure beats that. We came here to see `Beauty and the Beast' and get some culture. But this is the real culture."
Hale, the mayor's assistant, said what made this standoff unusual was that people were able to observe it live or on television as the drama unfolded, and to make a decision about how police were handling things.
"They see this man who's very unstable, and see how it's being handled instead of just seeing a TV picture of a house," she said.
Seattle Times reporters Dee Norton and Carole Beers also contributed to this report.
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