Seattle police assured a City Council committee Wednesday that they are prepared to deal with any violence that erupts during the upcoming May Day events, as they did last year when the department deployed waves of bike officers and blast balls loaded with powdered pepper spray as an unruly crowd turned violent.
Like last year, the incident commander will be Capt. Chris Fowler, who won praise for his deft handling of the May 1 activities and is also now the commander of the downtown West Precinct.
Fowler took over the role last year, after the department was heavily criticized for being ill-prepared and undermanned during May Day 2012, when protesters left a swath of smashed windows, vandalized cars and other damage in the downtown-business district.
Acting on official reports and recommendations that followed the lapses, police were better prepared last year when demonstrators turned angry and rock-and-bottle throwing erupted at the end of an evening “anti-capitalist” march from Capitol Hill to downtown.
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Only three windows at businesses on Capitol Hill, where some protesters dispersed, were broken, and police arrested 17 people, more than double the number of arrests the year before.
At Wednesday’s meeting of the council’s public-safety committee, Fowler, sitting alongside Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey, reported that he had been given the same directive this year as last: Allow peaceful marchers to exercise their free-speech rights but be prepared to arrest people who commit crimes against people or property.
Bruce Harrell, the committee chair, said at the end of the briefing that he was confident Seattle was “ready as a city” for this year’s events.
A large-scale march for immigrant and worker rights is planned for the afternoon of May 1, from Judkins Park in South Seattle to the downtown Westlake Mall, Fowler said in an interview after the meeting.
No violence occurred during that march last year.
But another, anti-capitalist march is being advertised on Facebook, to begin at 6 p.m. at Seattle Central College.
One posting on the page reads: “On May 1st, we will be meeting at SCCC at 6 p.m. and marching into downtown Seattle to protest against the Capitalist police state and continuing rape of civil liberties.”
It continues: “This march has an end goal for the day; to ReOccupy public space. We will not be divulging route info or tactics on this event page. All planning will be done in person in a secure location that most of you will not know about. Why? Because, in order to keep the people safe from police, we need to maintain a security culture that protects our common interests, including safety from brutally psychotic cops who seem to delight in the abuse of their fellow humans and push people around.”
Asked in the interview about the posting, Fowler dryly responded: “Anybody can occupy a public space.”
During the meeting, Fowler told council members he will retain control over the use of pepper spray, as well as devices such a blast balls used to disperse a crowd, as a riot-control measure.
But officers will have the discretion to use pepper spray to protect themselves and the public when required, Fowler said.
In addition to pepper spray and blast balls, police last year used bike officers trained in crowd-control tactics.
Fowler also said that in order to give innocent bystanders a chance to disperse when an order is given to a crowd, the department uses the loudest device available. Last year, that was the public-address system in police vehicles, he said.
Bailey told the committee that the department’s Force Investigation Team will be on hand to investigate use of force by officers that might arise.
The team was created to comply with a 2012 settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which called for reforms to address findings that Seattle officers too often resort to the use of excessive force.
Bailey said the department also has spoken with business owners downtown and in the East Precinct, which includes Capitol Hill, and reached out to organizers of the afternoon march.
After last year’s arrests, Seattle and King County prosecutors brought charges that included obstructing an officer, resisting arrest, property destruction, rioting and assault of a police officer.
Most cases were prosecuted, with guilty pleas and varying results. One case is pending and two were dismissed when video evidence contradicted the police version of events.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @stevemiletich.