SPD Chief Reiterates Reservations About Rules Restricting Use of Controversial Weapons at Protests

Seattle police officers fire tear gas at demonstrators on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (Twitter Screenshot – Chase Burns)

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz expressed his support last week for most of the recommendations the city’s Office of the Inspector General issued in July as part of its year-long review of SPD’s response to protests in the summer and fall of 2020. But he argued that some of the office’s recommendations—specifically, those suggesting the department scale back its use of tear gas and batons during demonstrations—don’t mesh with legislation passed by the city council in August restricting his department’s use of crowd control weapons, asserting that the restrictions actually increased the chances that SPD will use batons and tear gas during future protests.

Drawing from a year of panel discussions with representatives from both SPD and police accountability advocates, the OIG—an independent police oversight body that audits both the Seattle Police Department and its Office of Police Accountability—suggested several changes to the way SPD trains officers to respond to protests, including a recommendation that officers not form immovable lines in front of protesters. The panel assembled by the OIG also recommended that the department consider replacing radio communications with an encrypted messaging system like WhatsApp and create a central command center to streamline communications between officers during demonstrations.

In a letter to Inspector General Lisa Judge made public last Friday, Diaz said he supported the idea of revamping his department’s protest management strategies to avoid a repeat of last summer’s mistakes. SPD has already started retraining officers to avoid making arrests for minor tussles during protests, he wrote, and the department is purchasing new, “more subdued” uniforms to replace the intimidating body armor worn by officers during last year’s protests.

The chief also used his letter to raise concerns about the city council’s decision in August to restrict on his department’s use of so-called “crowd control” weapons. “It would be naive,” he wrote, to believe that SPD won’t need crowd control weapons to respond to protests in the future.

But Diaz was skeptical of other recommendations, including a suggestion that SPD change department policy to allow officers to show support for protesters, which Diaz said could create “legal complexities” for the department. And in response to a recommendation that SPD rely on CCTV cameras to spot acts of property destruction, Diaz noted that his department might need city council approval to expand its surveillance authority.

The chief also used his letter to raise concerns about the city council’s decision in August to restrict on his department’s use of so-called “crowd control” weapons. “It would be naive,” he wrote, to believe that SPD won’t need crowd control weapons to respond to protests in the future. In fact, Diaz argued that the only way to meet the OIG’s broader call to reduce serious uses of force against protesters, including tear gas, is for the department to purchase greater supply and variety of crowd control weapons.

While the OIG’s report urged his department to avoid using batons and tear gas against protesters, Diaz warned that under the new restrictions, his officers could be more likely to use those weapons as a last resort.

His warning is not new. In August, the council rewrote an earlier crowd-control ordinance, which banned the use of tear gas, blast balls, and other “less-lethal” weapons, after a federal judge blocked that law, citing the risk that SPD might resort to using batons against protesters if they didn’t have access to pepper spray and tear gas. But even after the council revised the ordinance, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan refused to sign it, predicting that the federal court would once again intervene to stop the new restrictions from taking effect. At the time, Diaz didn’t publicly side with Durkan; his letter to the OIG is the first sign that he may have reservations. For now, Diaz declined to comment on what lays ahead for the new law.

Several of Diaz’s subordinates—including Lieutenant John Brooks, the on-the-ground commander during many of last year’s protests—helped shape the recommendations. However, because the OIG finished its review before the council passed the latest version of the crowd control weapons bill, the office’s panel of stakeholders didn’t factor the new law into their recommendations.

The new restrictions on crowd control weapons can’t take effect without the federal court’s approval—a consequence of the 2012 agreement between Seattle and the US Department of Justice known as the consent decree, which placed a federal judge in charge of overseeing reforms to SPD. The department has until mid-November to draft policies on crowd control weapons that reflect the new law.

In his letter, Diaz also noted another key variable for the department: the city budget. “Our ability to implement change hinges precariously on our budget and staffing,” he wrote, “both of which have been under significant threat over the past 18 months.” For now, he added, SPD is relying on grants and dollars from the nonprofit Seattle Police Foundation to pay for training programs. Though he avoided making any explicit demands, his underlying argument was clear: If the OIG wants SPD to implement its recommendations, the office will need to go to bat for SPD’s budget.