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.” Continue reading “Protest Review Report Recommends Letting Cops Show Solidarity, Moving Away from “Crowd Control””