By Paul Kiefer
On Thursday morning, Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), one of the city’s three police-accountability bodies, released the first round of recommendations for changing how the Seattle Police Department responds to protests. The OIG made its recommendations after a year-long review of SPD’s response to last summer’s protests by a panel of community representatives, including current and former members of the Community Police Commission, and SPD staff, including some who played key roles in the department’s protest response.
With the help of OIG staff and outside facilitators, the panel reviewed a series of widely criticized police actions during the first three days of protests in late May and early June of 2020—a period that accounted for two-thirds of SPD’s uses of force and arrests during the protests—and assembled recommendations that could help the department avoid similar missteps in the future.
The proposals range from basic tactical changes, like prohibiting officers from leaving their weapons in unattended vehicles during protests, to more unique suggestions, like loosening the department’s policies on neutrality to allow officers to express solidarity with protesters.
In general, the panel recommended moving SPD away from a “crowd control” approach, emphasizing that the department’s role should be to facilitate protests, not direct or manage them.
“We all agreed transparency is of high importance to everybody. But in some situations, it’s important for police to be able to plan a response to something—people lighting a fire in an alley, for example—without flagging what they’re doing in real time.”—OIG director Lisa Judge
Inspector General Lisa Judge, who heads up the OIG, said some of the tactical recommendations—directing officers to minimize unnecessary arrests at protests, for example—are “no-brainers.” But at least one could be controversial. Responding to officers’ concerns about communication failures during the first few days of protests, the panel suggested that SPD could consider replacing radio communication with an encrypted messaging system, such as WhatsApp, during protests.
John Hollway, a consultant from the University of Pennsylvania Law School who helped design and facilitate the OIG’s review, said the change to encrypted messaging would give officers a reliable and better-organized channel for communications that can easily be shared with other law enforcement agencies providing backup during large-scale protests. Radio communications rely on a single channel that can only be used by one officer at a time—an obvious challenge for the department during frenetic protests. But shifting to an encrypted messaging system could also allow SPD to operate less transparently during and after protests. Messages sent using apps like Whatsapp are private and can be set to disappear, making them unlikely to show up in response to records requests. And unlike Whatsapp conversations, members of the public can easily tune in to SPD’s radio frequencies.
“There’s a tension here between transparency and tactics,” Judge said. “We all agreed transparency is of high importance to everybody. But in some situations, it’s important for police to be able to plan a response to something—people lighting a fire in an alley, for example—without flagging what they’re doing in real time.” Though the panel’s recommendation doesn’t specifically suggest that SPD keep a record of its encrypted communications, Hollway said that ideally, the department should determine how to communicate discretely while archiving officers’ messages so that oversight agencies could review them as needed after-the-fact.
The panel used the report to question Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to impose a citywide curfew starting on May 30, advising future mayors to exhaust other communication options before declaring a curfew. “If you’ve got 100 cops and 5,000 people who are very angry at policing in government and institutions, you are setting your police officers up for failure if you choose that as your strategy,” said Judge. “Even the police panelists said that they felt frustrated that the curfew pressured them to make arrests instead of focusing on more serious priorities.”
The panel’s recommendations for cultural change, Judge said, were about reframing the role of police at protests not as crowd control but protest facilitation. “The notion that [police] can command or manage a crowd is outdated, and it’s just not consistent with constitutional principles,” Judge said. “This report clearly states that they need to shift to an approach that’s about facilitating a protest, not directing it.”
As part of the shift in SPD’s approach to protests, the panel recommended that the department assemble a team of “dialogue officers.” This unit, based on a model launched in Sweden during large-scale protests in 2001, would act as a conduit for sharing information between protesters and police. “The whole point would be to have the dialogue officers spend the entire year building relationships with community members so that, when a protest happens, they pass information back and forth between the crowd and police.”
But in the context of protests against police overreach and misconduct, the dialogue officer model has potential shortfalls. “If the crowd doesn’t think of them as anything more than a tool for the police to manage protesters, the concept doesn’t work,” Judge said. Its success, she added, depends on SPD’s ability to treat the team as a tool for de-escalation, and not for enforcing order.
After community representatives on the panel pointed out that SPD officers’ apparent apathy toward protesters exacerbated tensions, the SPD representatives on the panel suggested allowing police to act sympathetically toward protesters. For example, current SPD policy would prohibit officers from kneeling during a moment of silence. “Protesters were out there saying, ‘how can you [police officers] be okay with this? How can you be okay with one of your own murdering somebody in cold blood?’ and they’re met with these stone-faced officers in riot gear,” she said. “And in response, some of our police panelists said that they didn’t think they were allowed to share their sympathies because they thought they would cross a policy line.”
As to whether loosening the department’s rules on political neutrality would open the floodgates for officers to express any personal belief during protests, “that’s not a needle that we have to thread—that’s for the chief to thread,” said Judge.
Although the panel includes Lieutenants John Brooks and James Dyment—the commanders who led SPD’s on-the-ground protest response for much of last summer, for which they faced numerous misconduct allegations—the OIG’s review intentionally avoids the issue of accountability for SPD’s errors during last summer’s protests. “This was about trying to plan ahead so that [SPD] can avoid the types of confrontations that end in tear gas and blast balls in the first place,” Hollway said.
The report released Thursday only covers the first three days of the protests, between May 30 and June 1. This three-day span accounted for twenty percent of SPD’s uses of force and 70 percent of protest-related arrests last summer, as well as nearly 70 percent of the protest-related complaints filed with the Office of Police Accountability.
The review process is far from over—the panel is reviewing last summer’s protests in four chronological sections. The next set of recommendations will center on SPD’s actions in the second week of protests. “This process is slow, and that’s intentional,” said Judge. “We don’t get a do-over of last summer, but we do have chance to do some deep accounting about it.”