In a tense exchange with Seattle police officials, Councilmember Bruce Harrell suggested an aggressive arrest contributed to a melee during an anti-capitalist march.

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The chairman of the City Council’s public-safety committee grilled Seattle police officials Wednesday over a bike officer’s aggressive arrest of a protester during Friday evening’s May Day march on Capitol Hill, suggesting the move was unnecessary and “created a melee” that followed.

“It just seems idiotic to me,” said Councilmember Bruce Harrell, referring to aerial video, widely viewed on the Internet, that shows the officer racing toward the male protester early in the anti-capitalist march, jumping off his bike and tackling the protester.

Harrell initially referred to the move as looking like an “unprovoked” ramming, in what appeared to be the first act of violence.

But Assistant Police Chief Steve Wilske, appearing before the three-member committee to brief it on May Day events, said police appeared to have probable cause to arrest the protester for assaulting a police officer shortly before.

During a tense exchange with Harrell, Wilske took responsibility for the action, saying officers were instructed they should make quick arrests to stem violent behavior.

Capt. Chris Fowler, the incident commander, said the other option was to let the protester go, prompting Harrell to ask why police couldn’t surveil him. Wilske said that would be difficult to do in low light.

The arrest triggered an immediate clash between officers and protesters at a Broadway intersection, some of whom swung sticks at police, as others hurled projectiles, tossed objects into the street and broke windows.

Fowler said officers decided making the arrest was the best move. Wilske added that if someone is willing to assault a police officer, it’s reasonable to assume that person also would assault others. Fowler acknowledged the crowd became more aggressive after the arrest, while noting that projectiles had been tossed at officers before that.

Assistant Police Chief Steve Wilske, center, and Capt. Chris Fowler, right,  explain police response to the May Day march on Capitol Hill.  (Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times)
Assistant Police Chief Steve Wilske, center, and Capt. Chris Fowler, right, explain police response to the May Day march on Capitol Hill. (Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times)

Harrell said the march “went sideways” after the arrest, asserting it was not the “smartest” or “wisest” approach. He said the department’s Office of Professional Accountability will be looking into the matter, declaring that de-escalation is expected of police and that there “seemed to have been a better way to approach this.”

Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, the department’s chief spokesman, said after the briefing that the protester, identified as Adrien Roques, threw an object at officers and then linked arms with other protesters in an attempt to evade police.

Video presumably showing the protester tossing an orange traffic pylon was posted on Twitter, Whitcomb said. KING-TV on Thursday posted additional video of the entire sequence of events.

Roques, 32, of Olympia, was later charged with misdemeanor assault in Seattle Municipal Court.

On Wednesday evening, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole issued a statement saying she was shocked and disappointed by Harrell’s comments, which she said “directly contradict the overwhelming, positive feedback” that police have received from the community.

Fowler, in his remarks to the committee, reiterated the department’s position that the march turned from a demonstration to a riot when the crowd began assaulting police.

At a news briefing Tuesday, Fowler said protesters didn’t hide the fact they were secreting or carrying potential weapons and openly talked in a way that suggested they were planning to cause trouble. “They were not shy about it, which also is an indication that they weren’t that concerned about what we were doing or our deployments,” he said, adding: “They had a plan in mind.”

Harrell, however, focused on police actions, also questioning the use of blast balls loaded with pepper that he said could blind someone hit in the eye. Two women, who were among a group of speakers who denounced the police during the public-comment portion of the briefing, displayed large bruises on their legs.

Other speakers praised police for quickly shutting down the protest.

Fowler told the committee officers are trained not to throw blast balls at individuals, but to toss them to explode in the air or on the ground for crowd control.

Police also launched blue-tipped impact sponges at protesters and used what is called a pepper-ball gun, the committee was told.

All uses of the three devices are being tallied, along with a review of every instance of force that will make its way to the department’s use-of-force review board, Wilske said. He noted the review is required under terms of a 2012 consent decree between the city and the U.S. Justice Department, under which the police department agreed to adopt reforms to address excessive use of force and biased policing.

Harrell said police perhaps would not have needed to deploy the devices if not for the bike officer’s aggressive arrest. He said the department should be a “learning organization,” with the capacity to admit if it did something wrong that might create legal liability.

Police earlier reported three officers were treated at a hospital for injuries suffered in the melee. On Wednesday, the department disclosed additional injuries to several other officers, including hearing loss and eye injuries.