By Paul Kiefer
At the end of October, after months of criticism from the city council, police oversight bodies and protesters, the Seattle Police Department announced in a blog post that they had “undertaken significant changes” to their protest management tactics. The post promised that SPD would reduce its visible presence at demonstrations to help quell tensions; that their officers would respect the roles of journalists, legal observers and protest medics; and that their protest response would focus on de-escalation and, when necessary, target individual law-breakers instead of largely law-abiding crowds.
But for more than a month, that promise of changes to SPD’s use-of-force and crowd management tactics seemed hollow. To have any real significance or consequence, the changes need to be enshrined in SPD’s policy manual. An crucial early step in that process took place last Wednesday, when SPD Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner appeared before the Community Police Commission (CPC), the civilian oversight body tasked with providing input on police reform, to present a slate of proposed changes to SPD’s protest response and use-of-force policies.
The proposed changes include an update to the manual emphasizing the importance of the right to protest and acknowledging that “the unlawful acts of some members of a crowd do not automatically turn an assembly from peaceable to unpeaceable.” They would also create a special team to investigate use of force at protests; specifically forbid officers from placing their knee on the neck of a person they’re arresting (a response to a well-publicized incident at a protest on May 30th); and allow officers to use pepper-ball launchers to target individual protesters they believe are breaking the law as an alternative to blast balls, which can hurt protesters standing nearby.
Other proposed revisions would require SPD command staff who lead protest responses (incident commanders) to provide explanations after the fact for any decision to issue a dispersal order to a crowd, and requires the incident commanders a “reasonable effort to ensure that the order is heard or received.”
According to Cordner, the department brought the tactical changes into the field before consulting with Judge James Robart, the federal district court judge who oversees police reforms mandated by a 10-year-old settlement agreement between Seattle and the Department of Justice known as a consent decree. Any changes to SPD’s use-of-force or protest management policies require Robart’s stamp of approval. Cordner’s presentation to the CPC is a step in that direction: the CPC, as well as the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), will review the proposed changes and suggest edits before a final draft of the policy revisions goes before Robart.
In response to last summer’s protests, the CPC, OPA and OIG issued their own recommendations for changes to SPD policy. During her presentation, Cordner claimed that the proposed changes to SPD policy reflected many of the accountability partners’ recommendations, including those the CPC issued in August.
That is only nominally true: the current draft revisions do not include many of the OPA and OIG’s most crucial recommendations, including a wholesale end to the use of tear gas for crowd control and greater restrictions on when SPD can declare an unlawful assembly. For its part, the CPC generally avoided suggesting specific policy changes; Cordner called the one clear policy proposal included in the CPC’s recommendations—that SPD document every decision to issue a dispersal order and make the documents public within 24 hours of an incident—an “infeasible” proposition.
The CPC will have a chance to ask Cordner questions about the current draft revisions during their regular twice-monthly meeting on December 16 and will respond and suggest their own changes next year. The OPA and OIG will also have opportunities to weigh in on the proposed changes. Both offices began reviewing SPD’s protest response policies to identify areas for improvement during last summer’s protests; those reviews will play a crucial role in shaping their suggested policy revisions.
After the CPC issues a response, they will work with SPD, the OIG, the OIG and other accountability leadership to piece together a final slate of policy revisions. That final draft will go before Judge Robart in early 2021; if he approves to the changes, SPD’s policies could catch up with what they say are already their current tactics next year.