Tag: protests

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

A protester talks with a Seattle police officer on May 31, 2020 (Flickr: Derek Simeone; reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

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.

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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””

Emails Reveal Durkan’s Role in Canceling CHOP Anniversary Event; Surveillance Law May Soon Cover Facial Recognition Tech

1. When the city initially denied a permit for a June event celebrating the art of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (relenting at the last minute after the ACLU of Washington threatened to sue), the department said it did so because of an “emerging concern” that any event commemorating CHOP could be “disturbing or even traumatic” to community members.

At the time, a spokeswoman for the Parks Department told PubliCola, “We will not be issuing a permit for this event as we have heard from community members expressing concerns that any events celebrating or commemorating the events that occurred at Cal Anderson in summer of 2020 would be disturbing or even traumatic to the community.”

But emails PubliCola obtained through a Parks Department records request reveal that this “emerging concern” consisted of emails from a relative handful of individuals, mostly people suggesting that an anniversary event would lead to graffiti, vandalism, and crime in the park. Three of the emails from members of the public mentioned trauma as a concern.

The emails also suggest that the mayor’s office wanted to deny the permit from the beginning, and landed on a number of different justifications for doing so before the city ultimately landed on “community concerns” as the official reason. (The mayor’s office has not provided records yet in response to a similar request.) In addition to the concern about community “trauma,” the mayor’s objections, as Parks staffers described them, included, at various time, concerns about COVID-19 protocols, the impact of closing down a street for the event, and the “safety and security” of people in the area.

According to the emails, Durkan’s office began raising concerns about the CHOP Arts event as far back as early May, and met with high-level staff in several departments on May 20 to discuss the event. Parks staffers came away from the meeting with the impression that the mayor’s office wanted them to deny permits for the event, and any event related to the anniversary of CHOP, because of the association with last year’s protests alone.

Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, confirmed that she convened the meeting. Her message to department leaders, Formas told PubliCola, was “We’re not permitting an official city event that violates the Governor’s order, shuts down multiple blocks of the City for a block party celebrating CHOP, and could be a security and safety concern if there’s permitted and unpermitted events occurring at the same time with thousands of people.”

Organizers did change their plans for the event several times, but the final version of the application, which Parks had received by June 4, did not propose blocking off any streets.

Formas suggested that COVID protocols were the mayor’s primary concern at the time.

“In mid-May, we were in the midst of planning for special events permits for May and June and planning for expected unpermitted protests around downtown and Cal Anderson,” Formas said. “We understood that there would likely be many unpermitted protests and marches downtown and on Capitol Hill, which did in fact occur, and we were planning for allowing permitted events that met the Governor’s restrictions. So ultimately the question was how do we balance COVID-19 safety and security of both planned and unpermitted events.”

Emails between parks employees, however, suggest that Durkan’s main concern was that the city shouldn’t appear to be acknowledging or commemorating the anniversary of CHOP, a long-term protest zone that formed around the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct after SPD abandoned the precinct amid protests against police violence last summer. The incident became a significant embarrassment for Durkan and the police department, which refused to say who gave the order to abandon the precinct; reporters at KUOW unravelled that story earlier this month.

The Parks Department came away from the meeting with Formas believing that the mayor’s direction was clear: Avoid permitting any event associated with CHOP, period.

For example, on May 20, the Parks Department’s recreation division director, Justin Cutler, wrote in an email to Parks staff that “the Mayor’s Office has given direction that we are not to permit events at Cal Anderson at this time. More specifically any event that would be celebrating CHOP.”

In a May 20 email to parks staffers about upcoming events in Cal Anderson Park, Parks Commons Program director Randy Wiger described the CHOP Arts event as “canceled as per mayor.”

In a Powerpoint distributed on May 23, the CHOP Arts event is “X”d off a list of upcoming events in Cal Anderson Park; the document cites ‘New direction from Mayor’s Office’ as the reason.

And on June 3, Wiger reiterated on a different email chain that “the direction from the Mayor’s Office is ‘no celebration of the CHOP zone.'”

The CHOP Arts event, which organizer Mark Anthony described as a kind of “Black renaissance fair,” went ahead as scheduled on the weekend of June 11. It did not result in a new protest zone.

2. On Monday, Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold introduced a clerk file—a type of clarification for earlier legislation—that would designate facial recognition as a form of “surveillance technology,” closing a loophole in the city’s surveillance regulations that came to light after a Seattle police detective used an unapproved facial recognition software in at least 20 criminal investigations.

The bill would augment Seattle’s three-year-old surveillance ordinance, which requires the council to approve surveillance technologies before a city department can put them to use. When the council passed the ordinance in 2018, they defined surveillance as any method of tracking or analyzing the “movements, behavior, or actions of identifiable individuals.”

In November 2020, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigated South Precinct Detective Nicholas Kartes for using the controversial facial recognition software Clearview.AI without his supervisors’ knowledge. In his defense, Kartes argued that the surveillance law does not cover facial recognition. Continue reading “Emails Reveal Durkan’s Role in Canceling CHOP Anniversary Event; Surveillance Law May Soon Cover Facial Recognition Tech”

Three Libraries to Cut Restroom Hours, Protesters Halt Removal of Garden at Jimi Hendrix Park

The Northwest African American Museum and Jimi Hendrix Park on Thursday. Photo by Paul Kiefer

1. Restrooms at three Seattle Public Library branches—Ballard, Capitol Hill, and the Central Library—that have will be open to the public fewer hours beginning July 21, a loss of access that will largely impact people experiencing homelessness in those neighborhoods. Most library branches have reopened on a limited basis, in many cases just two or three days a week.

In response to widespread restroom closures during the pandemic, the city’s library system opened restrooms at five branches from 10am to 6pm seven days a week last April; the goal, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan, was to provide “additional vital hygiene resources to people living unsheltered.” Now, restrooms will only be available when the libraries themselves are open; currently, all three libraries are open limited hours, meaning that restrooms will be closed at times when they used to be available.

The parks department confirmed that police do routinely accompany them to encampment removals “any time there are safety concerns during their work.”

The impact will be the greatest at the Capitol Hill branch, where people will no longer have access to restrooms on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday mornings from 10 to noon. In Ballard and at the central library downtown, restrooms will now be closed on Sundays and Mondays. 

Library spokeswoman Laura Gentry said daily access to library restrooms “was always meant to be a temporary standalone service until we could provide more restroom access through reopening libraries. Now that city and state COVID-19 restrictions are being dropped, more restroom options have become available to the public, and many more Seattle libraries are reopened, we believe it’s important to focus Library staffing efforts on reopening the last of our closed neighborhood libraries and supporting pre-pandemic service levels and hours.”

To library users who haven’t been able to go to their local branches in more than a year, accessing local libraries even two days a week will be an improvement. But to people living unsheltered who rely on regular restroom access at the three branches where hours are shrinking, the existence of open restrooms in other neighborhoods is surely a cold comfort.

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2. Signs that appeared around Jimi Hendrix Park near the Northwest African American Museum announcing that the city planned to come in and remove any belongings that remained on site yesterday morning had nothing to do with the longstanding protest encampment in front of the museum, a Seattle Parks Department spokeswoman said Thursday. Protesters showed up at the museum and blocked the entrance after word went around on social media about a potential sweep.

Instead, Parks showed up Thursday morning to dismantle a garden shed and remove a garden planted by Black Star Farmers, a group of land activists who established their first garden in Cal Anderson Park during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Continue reading “Three Libraries to Cut Restroom Hours, Protesters Halt Removal of Garden at Jimi Hendrix Park”

Council Reviews New Version of “Less-Lethal” Weapons Ban

Seattle Police Officers fire tear gas at demonstrators on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (via Chase Burns on Twitter)

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold introduced the latest version of legislation intended to restrict the Seattle Police Department’s use of so-called ‘less-lethal weapons’ against demonstrators during a public safety committee meeting on Tuesday, more than a year after the council first began its efforts to limit SPD’s crowd control arsenal. The proposal would restrict the use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray by SPD officers responding to protests and outright ban five other ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls.

If passed, the proposed legislation would replace an ordinance the council passed in June 2020, which SPD never implemented, that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

Shortly after the ordinance passed, US District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The order came in response to a warning from the US Department of Justice that any law preventing officers from using ‘less-lethal’ weapons against crowds might make officers turn to more serious uses of force, including hitting protesters with batons.

In the aftermath of Judge Robart’s restraining order, city council members turned to Seattle’s police oversight bodies—the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Community Police Commission (CPC)—and the team appointed by the federal court to monitor the city’s compliance with federal court orders to rework the legislation.

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The updated bill that Herbold introduced on Tuesday reflects the latest round of feedback from the DOJ and court-appointed monitoring team, who began an informal review of the draft legislation in February. In their recommendations to the council, the monitoring team emphasized that SPD officers need to be able to use targeted crowd control weapons against people committing acts of violence within larger peaceful protests, and that SPD will need additional time to adjust to any new restrictions on less-lethal weapons.

In its current form, the bill would ban officers from using “disorientation devices” like blast balls or ultrasonic cannons under any circumstances, with the exception of flash-bang grenades, which would still be available to SWAT teams. It would also allow officers to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds of protesters, but only in response to a “violent public disturbance”—a legal term to describe violence committed by a group of twelve or more people. Continue reading “Council Reviews New Version of “Less-Lethal” Weapons Ban”

Findings Against Former Police Misconduct Investigator Highlight New Oversight Challenges

Protesters gather at Seattle City Hall on June 3, 2020 (Bruce Englehardt via Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

As protesters began to trickle away from a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Seattle on May 30, 2020, an unmarked Seattle Police Department cruiser waited at an intersection near  department headquarters while a small crowd of demonstrators crossed the street. “God, I fucking hate these people,” said one of the officers in the cruiser as the crowd passed.

A small gap opened in the crowd as the traffic light switched to yellow. The cruiser’s driver—a sergeant, and the most senior of the four officers in the car—flashed the car’s warning lights and accelerated towards the protesters in the crosswalk. A few marchers dove to safety, barely escaping the cruiser as it passed. Onlookers watched as the cruiser sped away. Inside the car, an officer laughed.

Now, misconduct allegations against the sergeant, and how the city handled them, help illuminate how the last year’s protests have pushed the city’s police oversight bodies into uncharted waters.

The case of a sergeant who drove through a crowd of protesters is an unusual example of an OPA staffer being investigated for misconduct—and a unique example of an OPA employee facing an investigation unrelated to their work with the oversight office.

Within months of the incident, the sergeant took a new position as a misconduct investigator with SPD’s Office of Police Accountability. At the time of his transfer, the sergeant’s disciplinary record didn’t raise any red flags. While OPA Director Andrew Myerberg has a hand in deciding which officers transfer to and from his office, he said he wasn’t aware that the sergeant had driven through a group of marchers at the start of last summer’s protests, so he gave his approval to the new arrival.

Then a witness filed a complaint with the OPA about the near-hit-and-run, calling the sergeant’s actions “completely unprofessional and terrifying.” Although the sergeant wasn’t an investigator when he drove the cruiser into the crowd, his case is an unusual example of an OPA staffer being investigated for misconduct—and a unique example of an OPA employee facing an investigation unrelated to their work with the oversight office.

The OPA handed the investigation into the sergeant’s misconduct to a relatively new office: Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), an oversight agency that conducts audits of systemic or policy-based problems within SPD—and, in cases like that of the sergeant, investigates misconduct complaints against OPA staff.

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The OIG’s ability to investigate OPA staff may help reveal some of OPA’s own vulnerabilities. As mandated by the city’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild—Seattle’s largest police union—nine of the OPA’s 11 investigators are sworn police officers. The sergeant’s case revealed an inevitable challenge for the OPA: officers who transfer to the office from other roles in SPD may carry baggage, including a history of misconduct, that isn’t immediately apparent to the OPA director.

OIG’s ability to investigate OPA staff relatively quickly could improve Seattle’s police oversight system, but only if the OPA director has the power to remove problematic investigators from their staff. Whether the OPA director can successfully exercise that authority remains untested.

The sergeant also argued that his driving decisions weren’t a problem because they “worked out”—he hadn’t injured any demonstrators.

The OIG is not the first agency to investigate misconduct by OPA staff, but its creation by the Seattle City Council in 2017 vastly improved the efficiency of those investigations. Until 2017, Seattle’s Human Resources Department (or, in some cases, a private attorney) investigated most complaints against OPA staff. That structure was significantly slower than other misconduct investigations, in part because the investigators lacked significant experience in police oversight.

In findings released on April 7, Inspector General Lisa Judge ruled that the sergeant who drove through the crowd on May 30 had violated SPD’s standards for professionalism and safe driving. His decision to drive through a group of demonstrators, she wrote, “put an exclamation point on the community sentiment being expressed during [last summer’s] protests,” as did his failure to chastise his passengers for laughing as protesters dove to avoid their car. Continue reading “Findings Against Former Police Misconduct Investigator Highlight New Oversight Challenges”

Investigations into Police Conduct at Protests Provides Window into Office of Police Accountability

Protest at 11th Avenue and Pine Street on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (Creative Commons)

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) is less than halfway through the 142 investigations it launched into the Seattle Police Department’s response to last summer’s protests—the result of nearly 20,000 individual complaints. Since September, the office has closed 55 of those investigations.

Relatively few of the investigations resulted in the OPA finding an officer guilty of misconduct significant enough to merit discipline: The office only ruled that officers seriously violated department policy in 12 cases. Some involved well-publicized incidents. For example, the OPA ruled that an SPD officer breached department policy when he threw a tear gas canister at an NBC news crew in Cal Anderson Park on June 1, hitting correspondent Jo Ling Kent in the arm. Of the 12 officers involved in those incidents, SPD has issued written or oral reprimands to six, including the officer who threw the tear gas canister at the news crew. The other six officers await a disciplinary decision from Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz.

But the OPA isn’t limited to deciding whether or not an officer needs discipline. The office’s rulings on protest-related misconduct allegations have been a window into the OPA’s toolkit—and into the strategic thinking of its director, Andrew Myerberg.

Training Referrals

In about 20 percent of protest cases, Myerberg recommended “training referrals” instead of discipline. A training referral directs SPD to re-train an officer on the specific policy or practice they violated; the OPA typically issues the referrals to first-time offenders.

In one case, an officer received a training referral for having his body-worn video camera off when he fired a pepper ball at a reporter reaching into her bag at a protest on Capitol Hill; after watching the bodycam footage from a nearby officer, the OPA concluded that SPD couldn’t hear the reporter identify herself as press, and believed she was reaching into her bag for something to throw at him. Another officer was referred to training after insinuating that he would ticket a bicyclist who questioned why SPD officers were using a Seattle Public Schools property as a staging ground.

La Rond Baker and Erin Goodman, the co-chairs of Seattle’s Community Police Commission—one of the OPA’s counterparts in the city’s police accountability system—said it was unclear that training referrals are having their intended effect. “We believe there needs to be a critical conversation both about the effectiveness of these trainings, and the negative effects limited disciplinary sanctions might have on the culture of the Seattle Police Department and public trust in Seattle’s accountability system,” they told PubliCola in a joint statement.

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Myerberg says that the OPA hasn’t collected data about how well the training referrals work—for example, by tracking whether officers who go through mandatory training break the rules again—because of staffing restraints. “We have anecdotally looked at behavior changes,” he said, adding that his office hasn’t seen any noticeable patterns of repeat offenses.  Nevertheless, the OPA hasn’t formally reviewed the recidivism rates of officers who receive training referrals.

He also argues that issuing training referrals for first-time offenses that aren’t serious uses of force, bias incidents or dishonesty is a matter of fairness. Recommending more serious consequences for those first-time offenses wouldn’t be appropriate, Myerberg said, because “there’s no other employer that would hold their employees to that high a standard,” particularly given the unusual pressures of officers’ jobs—though, as police accountability advocates pointed out routinely over the past year, no other employer gives its employees the right to detain or kill. He added that issuing training referrals is an opportunity to push SPD supervisors to take a more active role in correcting officers’ behavior and department culture.

 

Management Action Recommendations

In some cases—like that of the British journalist who SPD officers arrested at Cal Anderson park last July—the OPA ruled that officers acted in line with department policy, but that their actions pointed to flaws in policy or training (rather than in the officers’ judgment). When those situations arise, Myerberg can issue a “management action recommendation” to suggest changes to the department’s policy manual and training curriculum.

Since September, Myerberg has issued eight of those recommendations. Those include a recommendation that SPD train its officers to make fewer misdemeanor arrests at protests to avoid escalating tensions, and that the agency screen its social media posts for accuracy. Current SPD policy only requires the department to screen tweets about shootings by officers and other incidents in which police kill or seriously injure people. Continue reading “Investigations into Police Conduct at Protests Provides Window into Office of Police Accountability”

Judge Sanctions Seattle for Violating Order Limiting Use of Weapons Against Protesters

Protesters face Seattle Police officers at a protest in May 2020 (Creative Commons)

 By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday, US District Court Judge Richard Jones issued a decision on the penalties Seattle will face for violating a court order he issued last summer to restrict the Seattle Police Department’s use of “less-lethal” weapons at protests. Jones ordered the city to pay $81,997 to cover the attorneys’ fees for Black Lives Matter Seattle King County (BLMSKC), the plaintiffs who sued the city in September 2020 for violating the court order.

In his decision, Judge Jones rejected two of the city’s arguments—that SPD officers did not violate the injunction, and that if they did so, the violations were minor—while also barring the city from introducing “new facts justifying the violations” after Jones found the city in contempt of his order.

The city’s attorneys tried to introduce new evidence to justify their actions during the protests, a request Judge Jones wrote would turn the city’s control over the most relevant evidence—body-worn video and officer testimony— into “both sword and shield. A shield because, during the contempt proceedings, the City would only introduce the evidence that it sees fit and would ask the Plaintiffs and the Court to consider only that limited record.” Allowing BLMSKC, “out of fairness,” to obtain use-of-force reports and body-worn video that would support its point of view would mean “that these proceedings would be endless,” Jones wrote.

But Judge Jones’ ruling was not a resounding victory for BLMSKC and its legal team, which included attorneys from the ACLU of Washington, Seattle University Law School’s Korematsu Center, and the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie.

Though Jones swatted away arguments from the city’s attorneys that he should reverse his ruling that found the city in contempt of a federal court order, he also turned down sanctions BLMSKC proposed as tools to keep SPD in line with the court order in the future: requiring SPD to send BLMSKC use-of-force reports and body-worn video from “any incident in which SPD uses less-lethal weapons against protesters” within five days of the incident.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Additionally, Jones slashed the city’s requested attorney’s fees by 65 percent, arguing that many of the attorneys’ hours were “excessive, redundant or unnecessary.”

Last June, BLMSKC filed the lawsuit that led Judge Jones to issue a temporary injunction prohibiting SPD officers from using blast balls, pepper spray, tear gas and other crowd control weapons against nonviolent protesters. After Judge Jones issued his initial injunction, BLMSKC returned to his court again in July to argue that SPD continued to use crowd control weapons against peaceful protesters; in lieu of a court hearing, the city’s attorneys and BLMSKC agreed to expand the injunction to explicitly forbid SPD officers from targeting journalists, medics and legal observers, as from using crowd control weapons to move nonviolent crowds.

But after SPD used crowd-control weapons, including flash bangs, against protesters in August and September, BLMSKC sued the city for violating the court order a second time. When Judge Jones ruled in BLMKSC’s favor in December, he pointed to four clear, documented cases in which SPD officers used blast balls and pepper spray in ways that violated his order by “a clear and convincing margin.” In that decision, he added that four well-documented violations were probably not the full extend of SPD’s breach of the court order; however, because the city didn’t provide body-worn video footage from several protests in August and September, he couldn’t confirm any other cases of misconduct. Continue reading “Judge Sanctions Seattle for Violating Order Limiting Use of Weapons Against Protesters”

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.”

Seattle Seeks Reversal of Contempt Order in “Less-Lethal” Weapons Case

By Paul Kiefer

On Monday, the office of city attorney Pete Holmes asked Federal District Court Judge Richard Jones to reverse his December 7 ruling that the city acted in contempt of a court order restricting the Seattle Police Department’s use of force at protests. In a motion filed with the Federal District Court of Western Washington, Holmes argued that Jones’ initial ruling held the city to an unreasonable standard for compliance with the court’s orders, and that the court lacked strong evidence to support the contempt ruling.

Judge Jones’ ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed in late September by a group of plaintiffs, chiefly Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County (BLMSKC), who alleged that SPD had failed to rein in its officers’ use of “less-lethal” weapons—particularly blast balls—at protests in the late summer and early fall. Specifically, the plaintiffs accused SPD of violating an injunction Judge Jones issued in July restricting officers’ use of force against peaceful demonstrators, journalists and legal observers.

In his December 7 decision, Jones didn’t accept the plaintiffs’ arguments outright, but he ruled that four clear instances in which SPD officers violated his injunction by using weapons such as blast balls “indiscriminately” against protesters was enough to place the city in contempt. Jones also noted in his ruling that these four documented cases were probably not the extent of SPD’s violations of his orders.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

After Judge Jones ruled the city in contempt, the court gave BLMSKC and the other plaintiffs four days to propose sanctions for the city. Their proposals were mild: the plaintiffs suggested that the court require the city to distribute copies of Judge Jones’ December 7th opinion to all SPD officers, “accompanied by clear instructions about what conduct is prohibited”; send use-of-force reports to the plaintiffs within five days of any incident in which SPD uses less-lethal weapons against protesters; and pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, which totaled $263,708.

Continue reading “Seattle Seeks Reversal of Contempt Order in “Less-Lethal” Weapons Case”

Community Police Commission Questions Proposed SPD Policy Changes

 

A commercially available pepper-ball launcher, one of the “less lethal” weapons SPD wants to use for crowd control. Image via Amazon.

By Paul Kiefer

Members of Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC), one of three city-level police accountability bodies, expected to spend an hour of their Wednesday morning meeting asking questions of Seattle Police Department Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner, who appeared at their last meeting to present an array of changes the department has proposed for its crowd management and use-of-force policies. Those proposed changes include the creation of a special team to investigate use of force at protests and allowing officers to use pepper-ball launchers to target individual protesters they believe are breaking the law as an alternative to blast balls, which can hurt protesters standing nearby.

But Cordner’s second appearance before the CPC did not go as planned; in fact, she didn’t appear at all. Instead, a post appeared on SPD’s Blotter blog on Wednesday night inviting questions and suggestions from the public about the proposed revisions.

SPD first announced plans to revamp some of its policies in a blog post in late October, responding to both public criticism of the department’s response to Black Lives Matter protests and recommendations from the city’s police oversight agencies, including the CPC. In that post, SPD said the policy changes are intended to reduce the visible police presence at protests “when safe and feasible”; to ensure that journalists, legal observers and medics can work freely during protests; to prioritize de-escalation; and to create “new strategies to address individuals taking unlawful actions in otherwise lawful crowds.” The post also claimed that the department had already made “significant changes” to their crowd management tactics; the policy revisions would theoretically cement those changes.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Any proposed revisions to SPD’s policies have to undergo a review and revision process that involves the CPC and other oversight bodies, namely the Office of Police Accountability, the Office of the Inspector General, and the Department of Justice, which oversees reforms at SPD through an arrangement called a consent decree. SPD didn’t share the draft policy revisions with the CPC until shortly before Cordner’s introductory presentation at their meeting on December 2, so commissioners sent a list of questions about the policy to SPD on Tuesday, December 15, in advance of Cordner’s scheduled appearance the following day.

The questions were uniformly critical of SPD’s proposed policy changes. Commissioners saw little overlap between SPD’s proposals and the list of policy recommendations they issued in August. One of the questions pointed out that the revised policies would still allow SPD to use blast balls, which the CPC has pressed the department to abandon since 2016. Another noted that the revisions would actually add a weapon—a pepper-ball launcher, which is akin to a paintball gun—to SPD’s arsenal instead of removing weapons. (SPD told PubliCola on Thursday that some specialty units were already allowed to use pepper-ball launchers; the new policy would only expand the number of officers authorized to use them). A third asked why the revised policies didn’t raise the requirements for SPD to issue a dispersal order at protests, despite both the CPC and OIG raising concerns about unreasonable dispersal orders since last summer. Continue reading “Community Police Commission Questions Proposed SPD Policy Changes”