Activists Criticize SPD Process for Approving Protest Policy Changes

By Paul Kiefer

On Tuesday night, Seattle’s Community Police Commission held a town hall to field responses to the Seattle Police Department’s proposed changes to their use-of-force and crowd management policies. The meeting was a rare opportunity for activist leaders to ask SPD representatives about the department’s policies and tactics; during a tense two-hour conversation, those activists pointed out that the lack of access to SPD leadership is itself a barrier to accountability.

Some of the proposals include the creation of a special team to investigate use of force at protests and allowing officers to use pepper-ball launchers as an alternative to blast balls, which can hurt protesters standing near the person an officer is trying to target. (The policies would not entirely prohibit officers from using blast balls.)

The CPC’s last public event was 2015, when the commission hosted a gathering to hear the concerns of protesters who had joined the post-Ferguson Black Lives Matter protests in Seattle. Tuesday’s gathering took a very different form: instead of public comment, the town hall paired a panel of police accountability and abolition activists—Nikkita Oliver, Travonna Thompson-Wiley of Black Action Coalition, Le’Jayah Washington from Colorful Communities and Braxton Baker from the Seattle Group for Police Accountability—with three SPD representatives.

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The CPC arranged the town hall at the last minute; SPD had previously planned to stop taking public feedback by January 8, but the CPC pushed the deadline back to make time for the event.

SPD Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner, who presented the proposed changes to the CPC in December, said the goal of the policy changes is to reduce SPD’s “footprint” at future protests and “target individual law-breakers” in a crowd instead of breaking up otherwise peaceful protests. According to Cordner, the changes would bring the department’s official policies up-to-date with tactical adjustments SPD made after last summer’s protests.

However, any formal changes to SPD’s policies require the approval of the federal judge that oversees the department’s reform efforts. To get that approval, SPD first needs to solicit feedback from the city’s accountability agencies and the public. Before the CPC arranged the town hall, SPD only planned to gather public feedback through an online form posted to their blog in December.

In her initial remarks, Cordner told the panel that SPD reviews and reworks its policies every year; she added that the department considers public input for every round of policy changes, though she didn’t explain how the department has gathered that input in the past.

Cordner’s comments caught the panelists off guard. “I find it pretty flagrant that SPD is parading this as some kind of accountability audit if this is the typical process that happens yearly,” Oliver said. “It’s concerning that I haven’t heard of this policy revision process before,” added Baker. “Because if it wasn’t for [advocacy by the CPC and other accountability groups], this town hall wouldn’t have happened.”

Others criticized SPD for releasing more than 100 pages of proposed policy revisions less than a month before the deadline for civilians to submit their feedback. “BIPOC communities were given only a scrap of time to put together their thoughts on the policy changes,” said Thompson-Wiley. “Meanwhile, the department has already started making the changes.”

At the end of the two-hour town hall, Boatright and the other SPD representatives told the panelists that they would “think hard” about their criticisms of the policies, though they did not give any indication that they would adjust their proposed revisions in light of the criticism.

Baker, however, ended his comments by calling for SPD to extend its deadline for feedback once again. “One town hall isn’t enough,” he said. “We need to hear from the victims who were affected by these policies before we can approve them.”