In context, Seattle police appear justified in their response to May Day protestors.

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WHEN police officers use force on civilians, context is everything. The Seattle police training manual, which was modernized under the weight of a federal consent decree, requires a “proportional” use of sophisticated techniques and equipment.

It rightly emphasizes officers’ duty to “defending the civil rights and dignity of all individuals.” But it also demands that officers act when necessary, lest they “fail to in their duty to act as public guardians.”

The annual May Day marches have become a test of that balance because “anti-capitalists” seek to hijack legitimate demonstrations for civil rights, workers’ rights and immigration. Two years ago, the department was caught unprepared as “black bloc” hooligans played destruction with the retail core.

This year, the Seattle police are accused of being over-aggressive and inciting a melee on Capitol Hill. The flash point appears to have been the aggressive takedown of a black-clad protester by an officer who leapt off his bike.

In isolation, a video of the incident raised legitimate questions. Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell last week questioned the wisdom of that arrest before the council’s public-safety committee, which he chairs. At the core of Harrell’s questioning — and his unnecessary description of the arrest as “idiotic” — was a demand for a better explanation of what happened. Fair enough.


Related video: May Day 2015 coverage

May Day demonstrations on Capitol Hill shifted from a protest – with marchers chanting for Freddie Gray and diners thanking Seattle police – to a riot with flash bangs, pepper spray, flag burning and arrests. Read more. (The Seattle Times)

In context, the force appears justified to respond to a deteriorating scene. A sergeant relayed to officers a tip about a vague plan to kill an officer. Property was being damaged and officers were being pelted with bricks and bottles. The 32-year-old protester whose arrest became a flashpoint was armed with three fist-sized rocks, a folding knife, a large battery, a wrench, a rock hammer and two wooden poles.

The ensuing melee was ugly, but it likely prevented further damage by those bent on destruction. Had the protest gone further, it could’ve spilled into the Pike-Pine corridor, thick with bars and residential housing. Business leaders applauded the police.

The police should heed Harrell’s request for a deeper explanation. Under the U.S. Department of Justice’s oversight, it is guaranteed, as is a review of every use-of-force incident. For the first time in years, there is widespread faith that Seattle police, under Chief Kathleen O’Toole, will do a thorough and fair job of assessing itself.

The department, however, could have done a better job getting out in front and explaining its strategic decisions on Capitol Hill. It had a chance to do that before Harrell’s committee met. It wasn’t until late Thursday night that Seattle police released a timeline, including the fact that a commander, viewing the increasingly chaotic scene, justifiably decided to disperse the crowd.

The weight of the federal consent decree, and new leadership, is pushing Seattle police toward a better-trained, better-managed, smarter department. The department is now more consistent on striking the right balance on the all-important use of force.

May Day 2015 was a test. There will, undoubtedly, be more such tests.