At the time, it seemed like a significant concession. Mayor Jenny Durkan and police Chief Carmen Best, facing mounting criticism over the police’s heavy-handed response to protests taking place after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, took to a podium at City Hall on Friday afternoon to announce Seattle police officers would stop using tear gas.
The chief’s directive to her officers, announced a few hours after the city’s three civilian-led police watchdog groups recommended that change, meant “banning the use of tear gas for 30 days in any of these protests,” Durkan said.
“In conversations with the chief, I know she agrees that SPD officers do not need to be using tear gas at protests as a crowd management tool,” the mayor said.
There’d be only one exception, Best said: Seattle police SWAT officers would “maintain their trained ability to protect life and to end standoff situations,” upon her, or her designee’s, approval.
But a little over two days later, white clouds of tear gas billowed across the streets of Capitol Hill, sending scores of choking demonstrators scurrying for cover and away from what had become the demonstrators’ primary gathering spot near the department’s East Precinct.
Seattle police announced their justification for breaking the supposed ban in a tweet at 12:18 a.m. Monday: “Officers are taking heavy projectiles, coming from the crowd,” said a post from the department’s official Twitter account. “A male, armed with a gun, is in the intersection of 11th and Pine ST. CS gas has been authorized.”
Some protesters and elected officials have since disputed the police account, and at least one of the city’s police watchdog groups said it understood the SWAT exception only would apply to standoff and hostage situations — not to demonstrations.
“That was our understanding, no tear gas for crowd control for any reasons, not even by SWAT,” said Jesse Franz, spokesman for the Community Police Commission. “I think it’s pretty clear that the spirit of our recommendations hasn’t been met.”
What’s more, the city’s announced ban wouldn’t necessarily apply to Washington State Patrol personnel called in to support Seattle police’s management of demonstrations, a WSP spokesman said.
“I think we’d try to work with them to have some consistency, but we’re never under the command of SPD,” state patrol spokesman Sgt. Darren Wright said. “We get their request for what mission they want us to accomplish, and then we make it happen under our command and our policy and procedure.”
During their news conference Friday, neither Best nor Durkan clearly articulated that the SWAT exception would apply during the ongoing demonstrations, or mentioned that other agencies supporting Seattle police could still use tear gas. The prohibition would remain in effect while city and federal oversight officials examined the police department’s crowd-management policies and recommended changes, they said.
In a letter the mayor sent Friday to the city’s three police watchdog groups and two federal oversight officials, Durkan described as “the limited exception” for SWAT’s use of CS gas as “prevent against the loss of life or to end stand-off situations like a hostage situation.”
At 9:44 p.m. Friday, several hours after the news conference, a post to the SPD’s website for the first time explicitly stated that SWAT officers could still deploy tear gas “for purposes of crowd control.”
Asked late Friday about the seeming discrepancy between the department’s post and what Best had announced earlier, SPD spokesperson Sgt. Lauren Truscott said in an email: “At the press conference the Chief said that she was suspending the use of CS Gas for crowd control purposes. The only conditions would be if SWAT was available to deploy them and there was a life safety issue.”
Truscott’s email also said the post on the department’s website had been updated to include specific language from the chief’s order.
Andrew Myerberg, director of the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) that investigates officer misconduct complaints, agreed that the language used during the news conference didn’t provide clarity. “It’s hard to tell exactly what the rule was, based on what the chief said at that press conference,” he said, adding he could see how “theoretically, it could apply to demonstration management.”
“In any event, we’re going to investigate whether or not that was a life safety circumstance, and they’re going to have to articulate why they think it was,” said Myerberg, who said his office has received several complaints about the department’s latest tear-gas deployment.
In their recommendations, the city accountability groups specifically called for stopping the use of tear gas “in response to First Amendment activity” and noted the department lacked a policy for guiding its deployment. The groups also cited concerns that CS gas has been banned in military engagements since 1997 by the international Chemical Weapons Convention, and that local public health officials have said deployment of the gas and other respiratory irritants during demonstrations could increase the spread of and risk to COVID-19.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who was at the Capitol Hill protest early Monday, contends that police “maced and gassed hundreds of us” while protesters were demonstrating, “without provocation.”
During a council briefing Monday, Sawant called police contentions that demonstrators were throwing objects at officers at the time “absolute gaslighting,” and described Durkan and Best’s tear-gas ban as “empty PR gestures that bore no relationship to the reality on the street.”
“The mayor’s touted, quote-unquote ban was not a ban in the first place, and it’s patently inaccurate for the media or others to characterize the action as a ban or even a pause,” Sawant added, citing the SWAT exception.
Sawant has proposed to outlaw city police from using tear gas, pepper spray, flash-bang grenades and other crowd-control devices; the full council is scheduled to take up next Monday. The proposal would also apply to other law enforcement agencies assisting Seattle police.
Between May 30 and June 4, an average of about 71 WSP troopers assisted Seattle police during demonstrations in the city, with troopers tossing about 25 tear gas canisters and launching about 35 CS gas projectiles during that time, according to statistics provided by Wright. The State Patrol hasn’t provided any personnel for demonstrations in the city since Friday, when Best’s tear-gas directive was announced.
Aside from WSP, Seattle police have received support during the demonstrations from several outside agencies, including the regional North Sound Metro SWAT Team staffed by officers from at least 10 local police departments. Glen Koen, the team’s commander, didn’t respond to questions about how many members were deployed, but said his officers deployed by hand four canisters of OC pepper spray during a single deployment to Seattle amid looting downtown in late May.
Officers from other police agencies operating under mutual aid agreements for crowd control generally can deploy tear gas and other crowd-control devices, but only after a host agency’s incident commander issues dispersal orders, said Redmond police Chief Darrell Lowe, whose department also assisted SPD.
Groups of Washington National Guard soldiers, ranging from 74 soldiers on May 31 to 600 soldiers on June 6 and 7, also have been deployed to Seattle at the request of Seattle’s Emergency Operations Center and with the governor’s authorization. The soldiers are armed with batons and shields but not tear gas or other munitions, a state military department spokeswoman said.
Seattle police did not immediately respond to a request Tuesday for details about how many officers and crowd-control devices it has deployed to date in response to the ongoing demonstrations.
Correction: Information provided by the Washington Military Department for this story about the number of National Guard soldiers deployed to Seattle initially reflected statewide deployment numbers. The story has been updated to include the number of soldiers specifically deployed to Seattle.