Police weapons control crowds, but may heighten chances of violence at protests

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1 of 9 Police pepper spray protesters Saturday, July 25, near Seattle Central Community College. The protesters were marching in in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality and racial injustice. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
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2 of 9 Seattle police use pepper spray on protesters along Harvard Avenue behind Seattle Central College as they advance their line July 25. Protesters that day came away bloodied with bruises, cuts and burns after police used crowd-control weapons, according to court filings. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
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3 of 9 Police use some sort of chemical gas to push protesters west on Pine Street in Capitol Hill during protests against police brutality July 25. Tensions were high in reaction to federal law enforcement officers stoking clashes in Portland, and to federal law enforcement officers arriving in Seattle earlier that week against the wishes of local officials. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
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4 of 9 Seattle Firefighters respond as construction trailers at the new King County juvenile detention center burn after being torched by protesters July 25. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
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5 of 9 Police and protesters clash July 25 near Seattle Central Community College in Seattle. There is no official accounting of that harm upon protesters, observers, journalists and bystanders on July 25, though dozens have documented injuries from blast balls, pepper spray and other munitions in court filings and interviews. (Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press)
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6 of 9 Police pepper-spray protesters July 25 near Seattle Central Community College in Seattle. A journal review examining chemical irritants like pepper spray and tear gas and counted 5,131 people who suffered injuries, two deaths and 58 people left with permanent disabilities. Nearly 9% of these injuries were considered severe. (Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press)
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7 of 9 Protesters kneel in the street after a back-and-forth with Seattle Police on Pine Street at Harvard Avenue in Capitol Hill on July 25. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
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8 of 9 Seattle Police advance on protesters using crowd-control weapons to drive them out from behind Seattle Central College on July 25. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
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9 of 9 Seattle police officers make their way down Pine Street in formation on one side, and put arrested protesters in a van outside of the East Precinct during demonstrations in the afternoon July 25. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

In a summer of skirmishes between protesters and police, July 25 stands out for the volume of its brutality.

Tensions had been primed in days prior. Video of agents seizing a protester in Portland sparked anger among some demonstrators. Then, federal agents traveled to Seattle, against local politicians’ wishes. And in an emergency hearing the night before, a federal judge blocked a Seattle City Council ban on tear gas, blast balls and similar weapons.

Protesters that day came away bloodied with bruises, cuts and burns after police used crowd-control weapons, according to court filings. Two people documented hearing loss. One described a cold shower after being “soaked” in pepper spray as “more painful than any other kind of physical trauma I have experienced, including broken bones and third-degree burns.” A neighborhood resident wore a respirator inside his apartment and still wheezed for an hour with asthma.  

In police incident reports, officers wrote that protesters punched them, shined lasers in their eyes and struck one of them repeatedly in the head with a broken umbrella. Seattle police said more than 50 officers were injured in the melee, and that one was hospitalized with a leg injury. 

Two months later, the use of crowd-control weapons in Seattle still hasn’t been resolved: Federal courts continue to review the Police Department’s policies and this week, former federal court monitor Merrick Bobb weighed in, criticizing the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) use of these weapons and saying “there simply had to be better ways to handle” the July 25 protests.

While police have continued to periodically use crowd-control weapons during protests since, the events of July 25 provide a window into the damage these weapons can inflict and raise broader questions about whether these weapons contribute to an escalation of violence.

There is no official accounting of that harm upon protesters, observers, journalists and bystanders on July 25, though dozens have documented injuries from blast balls, pepper spray and other munitions in court filings and interviews. The civilian-led Office of Police Accountability (OPA), which investigates police misconduct allegations, has 18 open cases from the July 25 protests, including complaints about crowd-control weapons and allegations that police targeted legal observers and journalists, pepper sprayed a nurse and dragged a woman having a seizure, according to the OPA website.

Much has changed since July 25: Federal officers decamped Seattle. Police Chief Carmen Best, who faced criticism for her department’s crowd-control tactics, announced she would step down. The City Council reduced funding to police, and later voted to override Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto against its budget.

But the conflict between police and protesters remains entrenched.

In a filing this week, former court-appointed monitor Merrick Bobb said SPD has lacked planning and training in its protest response this year. Police have been too quick to label protests “riots,” Bobb wrote.

“As a result of using the label of ‘riot,’ there followed indiscriminate and poorly controlled use of less- lethal tools, particularly tear gas and blast balls,” Bobb wrote.

*****

Renee Raketty sat alone on a fire escape in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood after several hours of photographing protests for Seattle Gay News on July 25. A line of police squared off with demonstrators nearby. Raketty said she held a camera and wore a press pass as she sat behind the police line. 

The march had been calm until the group arrived at King County’s juvenile detention center, where some people in the crowd lit several construction trailers on fire and then broke windows at several businesses along 12th Avenue. Police descended.

The confrontation went on for hours. Police pushed protesters through the neighborhood using pepper spray, blast balls and a launcher firing 40mm sponge rounds. People in the crowd threw objects like fireworks and water bottles at police. 

As she sat on the fire escape, Raketty noticed a bike cop approaching her. He seemed relaxed. Then, he glanced away toward where legal observers stood, Raketty said. 

Suddenly, “I see him toss a blast ball at my feet.”

In video from the scene, the officer walks away from other officers and into empty space to make his toss. 

Raketty is not sure if she lost consciousness. “When I came to, I was disoriented, confused.” 

She had partial hearing loss and a knee sprain, according to medical records. Raketty’s lawyer told the South Seattle Emerald hearing loss like Raketty’s should be reviewed by the department’s Force Review Board.

Raketty’s is one of about three dozen accounts filed in federal court after July 25 that describe bruises and lacerations, burns, a fractured toe, being pepper-sprayed in the face or “totally incapacitated” by pepper spray, nightmares and other effects. Many described police actions as indiscriminate. 

Protesters have gathered since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis to call for cuts to the Police Department budget, for investments in Black-led organizations and for charges against protesters to be dropped.

In sworn declarations and interviews with The Seattle Times, several protesters described leaving protests after being injured by blast balls or other devices. In court, the ACLU of Washington argues SPD’s use of crowd-control devices has deprived protesters and others of their First Amendment rights

“I realized I wouldn’t be able to run away fast enough from any type of projectile or explosive,” said Chloe Merino, a law school student who said she was pepper-sprayed and struck in the ankle with a blast ball on the July 25. “So we just had to make the decision to leave.” 

Later, a doctor told Merino she had a bone bruise and possible chemical burn.

Nine blocks from the East Precinct, Dwayne Linde was sitting at home when he got a whiff of a peppery smell and started wheezing.

“Wow, I’m getting gassed by the cops again,” Linde remembers thinking. 

Linde has persistent asthma that requires daily medication and is usually triggered by smoke, perfume or catching a cold. This time, it was pepper spray. He put on a N95 respirator, occasionally removing it to use his inhaler. It took a week to feel back to normal, Linde said. 

During protests this summer, Linde started paying close attention to live streams and making emergency plans to stay with friends anticipating police use of tear gas or pepper spray.

“I shouldn’t have to move,” Linde said.

Joshua Matney had a gash and bruising on his thigh on July 25 after being hit with a baton round that struck his right thigh before ricocheting and hitting his left leg, too. Later, a blast ball hit him in the ankle and knocked him off his feet, he said. 

At home, he discovered what he had thought was sweat running down his leg earlier was actually blood and went to the emergency room.

Officers were also hurt on July 25. SPD initially said 59 officers were injured. A list later provided by the department included injuries to 50 officers. By late August, 40 SPD employees had filed workers’ compensation claims through the city’s human resources department for injuries sustained on July 25 and July 26, according to the department.

Of the 50 entries on SPD’s list of injuries to officers, 39 mentioned ear or hearing injuries. For 15 injuries, officers reported seeking first aid or medical attention.

In a court filing on July 29, SPD Lieutenant John Brooks, who helped direct officers that day, wrote that after a suspected explosive device was thrown at the precinct, he worried “they might attempt to burn down the East Precinct or other structures.”

Police arrested at least 47 people, including 13 on investigation of assault and two on investigation of arson, but no charges have been filed since.

The King County Prosecutor’s Office on July 27 waived 12 cases from its felony first appearance calendar, allowing suspects’ release. Initial information from police did not meet the office’s standards to seek bail, said Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for the prosecutor. 

Probable cause affidavits for arrest in those cases relied on sparse details, sometimes describing allegations in a single sentence or using information relayed secondhand from other officers. 

Since, police have sent additional documents in two felony cases, which prosecutors are reviewing. Police also forwarded an additional case for review that involves someone who was not arrested at the protest. Two referrals involve allegations of felony assault. The other involves an allegation of unlawful discharge of a laser.

Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Stephanie Knightlinger said prosecutors want to see as much evidence as is available — particularly video from police body-worn cameras or from social media — before making independent charging decisions.

“We want to take our time and be right,” Knightlinger said.

Meanwhile, police referred 29 misdemeanor cases to the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, which declined charges for 27 of them. Two remain under review, said spokesperson Dan Nolte.

***

Pepper spray, blast balls and other devices allow police to “address conduct at a distance,” wrote Brooks, the SPD lieutenant. Forcing the crowd to keep moving prevents people from “having the time to stage and plan” property destruction or other acts, Brooks wrote.

Experts who study crowd control agree; they also say the devices can be dangerous.

“You don’t need multiple Ph.D. dissertations to say these weapons are dangerous, that they’ve caused lots of deaths and permanent disabilities,” said Rohini Haar, an emergency room physician and lead author of studies about less-lethal weapons.

Haar and other researchers in 2017 published reviews of scientific journal articles worldwide about deaths, injuries and permanent disability from rubber and plastic bullets, bean bag rounds and other projectiles meant to be less than lethal. 

Together, the articles included injury data for 1,984 people over 25 years, including 53 people who died of injuries and 300 who were permanently disabled. 

Haar said the data likely represents a sliver of overall harm caused by less-lethal weapons because her review only covered what is published in selected scientific reports. 

A separate journal review over the same period examined chemical irritants like pepper spray and tear gas and counted 5,131 people who suffered injuries, two deaths and 58 people left with permanent disabilities. Nearly 9% of these injuries were considered severe.

Charlie Mesloh, a professor of criminal justice at Northern Michigan University and expert on less-lethal weapons, said the only way to ensure safety when attending a demonstration where these tools are used is to leave. 

“If it’s strong enough to incapacitate you, it’s strong enough to kill you,” Mesloh said.  

Mesloh said chemical agents — tear gas, mace or pepper “OC” spray — are probably safest for police use, but people’s bodies react differently to these substances. Mesloh allows students to test less-lethal weapons on him, except for impact projectiles such as the sponge rounds used by Seattle police. 

“They’re simply flying pretty fast by design and they’re designed to hurt somebody and make somebody stop,” Mesloh said. 

Mesloh, a former police officer, said his widespread testing of less-lethal munitions — mostly conducted a decade ago — identified inconsistencies in how these weapons perform and also that some contained potentially dangerous and unlisted ingredients. 

“You have more regulations on what can be called bourbon and what can be called scotch,” Mesloh said.

Mesloh has argued for nationwide manufacturing standards and more training for police. He views bans as counterproductive.

“Once the tools go, it gets very brutal very fast,” Mesloh said.

What other options are available to police? 

“Calmer heads need to prevail,” said Ed Maguire, a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. “Any police department with ongoing conflict between police and protesters needs to have the humility to take a step back and say, ‘What can we do differently?’”  

Maguire said measures police often believe keep them safe — wearing riot gear or skirmish lines — can, perhaps counterintuitively, make things more dangerous. 

And injuries to protesters often lead to increased injuries among police, he said. 

“If they think cops are behaving unfairly against them and their peers, using force unfairly, making arrests they believe are unfair, it leads to an increase in support for acts of violence against police officers.”  

Ideally, protesters view police as protective of their right to First Amendment expression, Maguire said, adding that departments should assign officers skilled at communication and with special uniforms to engage crowds and de-escalate conflict. 

Before using force, police should issue a clear dispersal order and then give time and space for protesters to clear out. 

“A crowd should never find out police want them to leave because police are using enforcement action against them,” Maguire said, adding that departments should invest in more powerful sound systems.

SPD has a long history of crowd management. Many of the best practices outlined by Maguire — such as avoiding skirmish lines when not defending a fixed position, preventing the indiscriminate use of crow-control weapons and a philosophy of protecting free speech rights — are already SPD policy.

“We don’t take it lightly at all,” said Brooks, who helped draft SPD’s crowd-control response manual, in a late August interview. “I would like people to understand how measured, how much thought, how much training, how much consideration is put into this.”

Bobb’s memorandum — which suggests disallowing tear gas and rewriting SPD policy to set a higher bar for what’s considered a riot among other measures — now joins a chorus of differing critiques of SPD’s crowd-control methods, including reviews from the Office of Police Accountability, Office of the Inspector General Community Police Commission.

Federal judges will likely decide what role crowd-control weapons can play in Seattle’s future demonstrations.

For now, an injunction against the use of the weapons against peaceful protesters remains in effect while attorneys debate a City Council ordinance forbidding the use of such of weapons.

Staff reporter Nina Shapiro contributed reporting.

Evan Bush: 206-464-2253 or ebush@seattletimes.com; .