On the sixth day of major protests in Seattle over the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minnesota, city officials announced Wednesday they would withdraw a request that could have cleared the way to lift eight years of federal oversight of the Seattle Police Department.
The dramatic change in the city’s approach capped a day of pressure from political leaders, community organizers and demonstrators who called for measures such as defunding and demilitarizing Seattle police. Meanwhile, the protests showed no signs of slowing: Thousands continued to march downtown and in Capitol Hill on Wednesday to oppose police brutality and call for racial justice.
The city also announced it would end nightly curfews, which had been scheduled to remain in effect through Saturday morning.
City Attorney Pete Holmes said Wednesday he has been closely monitoring the city’s response to the demonstrations and the 14,000 complaints about police officers’ actions during the protests – including the use of pepper spray, flash-bang devices and tear gas against some demonstrators – that have been made to Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the watchdog agency that conducts internal investigations.
Noting “we are about to witness the most vigorous testing of our city’s accountability systems,” Holmes said, “it’s become clear to me that we need to pause before asking U.S. District Judge James Robart to terminate” a key portion of a 2012 federal consent decree “so that the City and its accountability partners can conduct a thorough assessment of SPD’s response to the demonstrations.”
The city last month, in a motion filed jointly with the U.S Department of Justice, had asked Robart to find the city had met the requirements of a two-year period to show it has remained in compliance with the consent decree. The city cited the need to recognize the department’s widely praised efforts to address Justice Department allegations of excessive use of force and biased policing and shift badly needed resources to the coronavirus crisis.
Before Holmes’ announcement, Seattle City Council President M. Lorena González told The Seattle Times on Wednesday that she supported withdrawing the motion, saying much had changed since Floyd’s killing.
“The sheer volume of … complaints that are flowing from the Police Department’s response and management of these demonstrations is reason enough for the city to take a step back,” González said.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a Seattle City Club interview Wednesday that she agreed with the decision to withdraw the city’s request. She had supported the motion last month and since then. But she said Wednesday, “We need to take a pause … With what’s going on right now, we need to engage more people.”
She said in a statement Wednesday that the motion was not filed with the intent to end the consent decree.
But if approved, the request would have opened the door for the city to ask Robart to be released from oversight, while leaving it unclear how it planned to address his concerns.
The city still needs to address issues Robart flagged a year ago regarding the city’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), Durkan said. The judge cited an appeal process that allowed an arbitrator to lift the firing of an officer who had punched a handcuffed woman who had kicked him. A King County judge later reinstated the firing at the city’s request.
Durkan pointed to a May 29 open letter from SPOG as a hopeful sign toward seeking consensus. It condemned the killing of Floyd, saying there was “no law enforcement or self-defense rationale” for the prolonged use of the officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck captured with cellphone video.
The letter said SPOG, which represents more than 1,200 officers and sergeants, recognizes that all police officers, possibly for years to come, will be held accountable.
Guild President Mike Solan said Wednesday that he is on record saying he will “meet with anyone at any time.”
But Solan said he didn’t have time to elaborate since he had been working long days protecting the community.
“I’d be happy to talk at a later time,” he said in an email, when the Police Department’s emergency staffing has ended and “law [and] order is restored.”
Calls to defund
In a video news conference Wednesday morning, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, community leader Nikkita Oliver and other advocates called for the consent decree to remain in effect and criticized a “militarized” response to mostly peaceful protests. They said half the city’s police budget should be redirected to youth programs, affordable housing, health care and other uses.
The Police Department’s budget is more than $400 million this year, accounting for about a quarter of Seattle’s general-fund spending. The city has projected a budget gap of $300 million this year, due to tax revenue streams reduced by coronavirus-caused business shutdowns.
“There is absolutely no reason for police forces to be marching through the streets with military-grade equipment,” Oliver said in the news conference.
Similar themes dominated a meeting later Wednesday where Durkan and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best sat down with protest leaders and longtime community activists, including Oliver, at City Hall.
Outside the meeting, in the late afternoon, thousands of people wearing face masks stood on the sidewalks or sat in the streets. Cardboard signs with such phrases as “White silence=violence” and “One bad apple spoils the bunch” sat on their laps as they listened to speakers on the City Hall steps. In between, the sea of people chanted in unison, “Black Lives Matter!”
“With destruction, we will rebuild it as it’s supposed to be,” said 20-year-old protester Jordan Davis-Miller as the crowd cheered.
When Oliver and Durkan emerged from the meeting, Oliver listed the protesters’ demands, which included cutting the city police budget in half and investing in communities, affordable housing and alternatives to incarceration.
In response, Durkan addressed the crowd by acknowledging that they stood on Duwamish lands “and that all we have was actually taken,” she said. When Durkan mentioned “the death that happened in Minneapolis,” the crowd drowned out her speech for several minutes with demands that she “say his name.”
“I know as mayor, I have enormous privilege,” Durkan told them. “And that my ancestors came here from Ireland to seek freedom, but that many Black Americans ancestors’ came here in shackles, stolen from their lands,” Durkan said. A protestor shouted: “But what are you going to do?”
“True public safety does not come from police. True public safety comes from access to health care, in education justice, and good paying jobs, and respect and dignity, and making sure that we do have more progressive taxation,” Durkan said.
When Durkan returned to her meeting, Oliver told the crowd the mayor had not addressed the demands.
At a Seattle City Council public safety committee meeting, also on Wednesday, Sawant said she intends to bring forward a proposal that would cut the police budget. She also wants to ban Seattle’s use of chemical weapons and rubber bullets.
Hours earlier in the meeting, public commenters described being terrorized by police during the protests and urged the council to make sweeping changes. A middle school teacher said her students wanted to participate in the protests but were too scared of the police. A nurse described officers ratcheting up tensions by massing in riot gear. A father described tear gas seeping into his Capitol Hill home.
Councilmember Dan Strauss said using military-grade weapons in response to protesters throwing water bottles is disproportional force.
In an exchange between Sawant and Best, Best said SPD’s crowd-management policies were developed under the “watchful eye” of the federal government and approved by the Department of Justice and courts.
For hours each day and night, Seattle police have allowed nonviolent protests to proceed, she said, blaming the chaos that also has erupted each night on bad actors hurling concrete, fireworks and feces at officers.
Durkan said in the Seattle City Club interview Wednesday evening that some changes may need to be made to police tactics for demonstrations, particularly later at night.
“In the peaceful protests, we’ve done really well,” the mayor told Civic Cocktail host Joni Balter.
“But what we’ve seen is at the end of the night, when people need to disperse, we need to work on how we do it, because it has not ended well any night,” she added.
Seattle’s current crowd-management policies went through a court-approval process as part of the city’s consent decree, Durkan said. But it’s become clear another from the Police Department’s independent Office of the Inspector General is needed, she said.
“There’s a huge amount of distrust in the community,” she said. “We’ve got to get better at de-escalating that.”
Hundreds of protesters had gathered again in Cal Anderson Park in the early afternoon, feet from the intersection of 11th Avenue and Pike Street where on Monday and Tuesday night police deployed flash-bang devices and tear gas to disperse protesters.
Emi Nakamura, a music teacher at Leschi Elementary, was out for the second time this week, handing out bags filled with water bottles, bandages, eye drops and alcohol pads in front of a van with the words “medic + food” on it. She said some of her students, all fifth grade or younger, have even been out at the protest.
Each time she’s gone out to protest, she’s gone home when the sun goes down — but she’s determined to keep coming out until something changes.
“I fully believe we’ll be keeping up these protests until the day police reform, or are defunded, or even abolished,” Nakamura said. “We’ve been waiting a long time.”
After 2, the march began. Marchers in the front led the crowd down Broadway, where cars swerved or turned around as the streets were filled with marchers. When they got to Union Street, the leaders of the march looked back at the crowd, which stretched more than two full city blocks. Everyone cheered.
“Yo, we (expletive) did that,” one organizer laughed.
She and others began chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!”