Tag: excessive force

Federal District Court Judge Finds Seattle in Contempt of Crowd Control Injunction

By Paul Kiefer

On Monday, Federal District Court Judge Richard Jones found the city of Seattle in contempt of an injunction he issued in June forbidding the Seattle Police Department  from using force against peaceful protesters. According to Durkan spokesperson Kelsey Nyland, the ruling is the first contempt finding against the city in recent memory; within the next week, the court will begin considering possible penalties.

The contempt finding is the latest development in a protracted legal battle between the city and Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County (BLMSKC). Judge Jones first issued the injunction after BLMSKC and a group of individual plaintiffs, represented by attorneys from the ACLU of Washington, Seattle University School of Law’s Korematsu Center, and Seattle law firm Perkins Coie, sued the city and SPD for using excessive force in its response to the first wave of protests last summer. In June, Jones sided with BLMKSC and issued a temporary injunction prohibiting officers from using a variety of “less-lethal” weapons, including blast balls, pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets, against nonviolent protesters.  He also found that some officers had used force in response to the message of the protests themselves, not any perceived threat to their safety or to property.

A month later, BLMSKC returned to his court to ask Judge Jones to find SPD in contempt of the injunction after the department allegedly targeted journalists, medics and legal observers at a Capitol Hill protest on July 25. That motion never received a hearing; instead, the city’s attorneys and BLMSKC agreed to expand the injunction. The expanded court order explicitly prohibited SPD from targeting journalists, medics and legal observers, and it restricted officers’ use of less-lethal weapons even further; for instance, it forbade officers from using these weapons to move crowds.

Judge Jones’ new finding is the result of a second motion for contempt that BLMSKC filed against the city at the end of September. In the motion, the group’s attorneys alleged that SPD officers violated the new, more restrictive injunction during their responses to protests in August and September, including at a rally for Summer Taylor, a Seattle protester who died after being struck by a car, on August 26 and at a protest outside the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) headquarters on August 7.

David A. Perez, a partner at Perkins Coie, said in a statement after the ruling: “This ruling reaffirms that the basic principle that protesters have a right to exercise their First Amendment freedoms without fear that the City will retaliate with violence, and serves as a reminder that the City cannot violate the Court’s orders without consequences. We will continue to take violations of the Court’s orders seriously.”

“Asking the Court to find the City in contempt was not an easy decision on our part.  But after witnessing repeated and blatant violations of protesters’ constitutional rights, we had to act.  This ruling reaffirms that the basic principle that protesters have a right to exercise their First Amendment freedoms without fear that the City will retaliate with violence, and serves as a reminder that the City cannot violate the Court’s orders without consequences. We will continue to take violations of the Court’s orders seriously.”

According to Robert Christie, an outside attorney representing the city in the case, SPD’s actions were justified. In his arguments at a hearing on November 18, Christie said SPD officers were instructed to use less-lethal weapons in response to threats to their safety. The city’s legal team also argued that it wasn’t SPD’s fault if individual officers disobeyed the injunction. To shore up their claim, the team filed declarations from SPD commanders who described briefing their officers on the injunction before they responded protests.

In his ruling on Monday, Judge Jones categorically dismissed the city’s argument that it wasn’t liable for the actions of individual SPD officers. After calling the city’s arguments “novel and innovative,” he pointed out that “the City has already agreed that violations by individual officers are nonetheless violations of the [injunctions]” when it agreed to both previous court orders, setting the stage for his contempt findings.

Judge Jones’ decision to find the city in contempt rests on four instances in which the court determined that individual SPD officers used less-lethal weapons in violation of the court’s orders. Three of those violations involved officers using pepper spray and blast balls indiscriminately against protesters. In the final case, Judge Jones noted that SPD Lieutenant John Brooks, who frequently coordinates the department’s protest response, ordered an officer to use a blast ball to “create space” between officers and protesters; that, the judge wrote, was not a justified use of force.

While acknowledging that SPD’s tactics had become “more restrained” since June, Judge Jones was quick to emphasize that the four clear, documented violations were more than enough to justify his contempt ruling. “They were not at the boundary, overstepping ever so slightly or ‘technically,'” he wrote. “They violated the substantive terms of the Orders by a clear and convincing margin.” He added that the four clear violations were probably not the full extent of SPD’s breach of the court’s order, pointing out that the city hasn’t yet provided body-worn video footage from several protests that might reveal other misconduct.

Seattle is now the second city found in contempt of a federal court order limiting police officers’ use of force in protest management. On December 1st, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Marco Hernandez found the city of Portland in contempt of a similar injunction he issued on June 26th; that order also stemmed from a lawsuit against the city by a group of protesters at the beginning of last summer.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city have until December 11th to send a proposal for consequences to the court, and the city can file a response to those suggestions before December 18th. If the court imposes a fine on the city, those dollars will come from the Judgment and Claims Fund, into which multiple departments—including SPD—pay each year.

Council Bans Use of “Less Lethal” Weapons and Chokeholds as Cop Funding Discussion Gets Underway

Police stand by during a recent encampment removal by the Navigation Team, which is made up mostly of Seattle police officers.

This story first appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

The Seattle City Council voted unanimously today to ban the Seattle Police Department from owning or using so-called “less lethal” weapons such as blast balls, tear gas, and pepper spray for any purpose, and, in separate legislation, to ban the use of “chokeholds,” a term that includes various methods of restraining a person by cutting off their air supply or blood flow to their brain.

City council member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, had proposed delaying the legislation barring less-lethal weapons for one week at the request of the Office of Police Accountability and the Office of Inspector General, which asked the council for one week to review the legislation and make recommendations. The OPA and OIG, along with the Community Police Commission, are the three accountability groups charged with implementing and overseeing police reforms required by a 2012 federal consent decree.

Delaying a week would not have allowed police to resume the use of blast balls, tear gas, and other weapons against protesters, thanks to a federal court ruling from Friday, June 12, barring the use of force against peaceful protesters for two weeks. However, council member Kshama Sawant, who sponsored the legislation, said on Monday morning that she was “at a loss to understand how any council member can play a role in delaying the passage of what is absolutely bare minimum legislation.” 

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Sawant continued to inveigh against Herbold at the full council meeting at 2pm, calling an amendment that would allow police to use non-lethal weapons under circumstances unrelated to free speech or “crowd control,” such as subduing individual suspects, “nothing less than a racist amendment [and] a betrayal of the movement and the Black community.” Earlier, Sawant called the same amendment “horrific” and suggested that it would “create giant, truck-sized loopholes that will allow these weapons to be used in virtually any situation.”

Herbold’s amendment mirrored language adopted by the Community Police Commission in 2015 and in 2020 recommending a ban on these weapons specifically for crowd control purposes. The CPC, OIG, and OPA have not weighed in on whether less-lethal weapons should be banned outright, a move Herbold—a longtime advocate for police reform—said she worries could have unintended consequences.

Herbold didn’t directly address Sawant’s accusation, but did agree to withdraw the portion of her amendment to Sawant’s bill that would have allowed less-lethal weapons to be used for purposes other than crowd control. Her amendment, which ultimately passed, added language to Sawant’s bill asking the OPA, CPC, and OIG to “make a formal recommendation to the City Council on whether the Seattle Police Department should be reauthorized to use less-lethal weapons for crowd dispersal purposes” by August 15.

The council is sending the legislation to the Department of Justice, Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who presides over the consent decree, and court monitor Merrick Bobb, who was appointed to oversee the decree. The consent decree is an agreement, signed by the city in 2012, that committed the city to police reform after the federal court found a pattern of excessive force and racially biased policing. 

In early May, Mayor Jenny Durkan asked the judge to find the city in long-term compliance with federally mandated reforms, one of the final steps before the dissolution of federal oversight SPD. Less than three weeks later, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis and police in Seattle responded to mostly peaceful protests with violent force. 

The discussions about less-lethal weapons are just the first phase of discussions about the size and purpose of the police department, which will continue on Wednesday at 2pm with a discussion in the council’s budget committee about proposals to defund the department and invest in community organizations that provide alternative approaches to community safety and prosperity.