Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to place Seattle under curfew for a third straight night and similar orders by other Puget Sound mayors drew criticism Monday from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) amid ongoing protests against police brutality and new scrutiny of officer actions.
Some Seattle City Council members raised concerns about the city’s response to demonstrations over the weekend, as the independent, civilian-led office that investigates Seattle Police Department misconduct said it had received about 12,000 complaints related to those demonstrations.
From that flood, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) has identified 10 specific incidents that drew the most complaints and has opened investigations into each, it said.
Durkan announced her curfew, which began at 6 p.m. and was set to last until 5 a.m. Tuesday, at a news conference Monday afternoon, describing it as a tool to help Police Chief Carmen Best maintain control on the streets and help her officers separate law-abiding protesters from troublemakers. Durkan will decide whether to extend it further on a day-by-day basis, she said.
The mayor initially ordered a two-day curfew Saturday, as peaceful protests downtown against the killing of Black people by police, and the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police a week ago, took place near violence, damage and looting.
No one was arrested merely for violating the curfew Saturday night, Best has said. Despite the curfew, police allowed hundreds of people to march Sunday night in demonstrations that were largely nonviolent.
“The curfew is a tool the police can use, like any other law, to help control and maintain public safety,” Durkan said, promising officers would continue to “use discretion” and balance the order against First Amendment rights.
Mayors in other Puget Sound cities also issued curfews on Monday, leading the ACLU of Washington’s executive director, Michele Storms, to issue a statement.
“The curfew orders issued by multiple Washington cities risk chilling the free speech of communities and individuals who are calling for a change to Washington’s and this country’s history of biased policing and disparate use of force against Black people,” Storms said.
“They open the door to selective enforcement, potentially magnifying the very harms that protesters and communities have been demanding be addressed for decades,” Storms added, calling on mayors to use less restrictive tactics.
Earlier Monday, Council President M. Lorena González and Councilmember Lisa Herbold also questioned the move, skeptical another curfew would serve to separate peaceful protesters committed to civil disobedience from violent wrongdoers.
As she and Best did Sunday, Durkan again drew a sharp line between thousands of people who protested peacefully over the weekend and others who broke windows, looted stores, started blazes and threw projectiles at officers. The mayor pointed to a timeline of chaotic events reported by police Saturday.
“By midafternoon, several incidents quickly devolved into situations that endangered the lives of those demonstrating as well as our officers,” the police department wrote in a Monday blog post accompanying the timeline, which includes entries such as, “Officer struck in the throat by a projectile. Minor injuries.”
At their height, Saturday’s demonstrations involved about 10,000 people, according to the department, which reported hundreds of buildings damaged downtown and in the Chinatown International District, at least eight vehicles burned and 57 arrests, mostly for burglary and arson. As of early evening Monday, the city had yet to release information about the people who were arrested in connection with the events.
Floyd’s brother has spoken out against violence in demonstrations, noted the mayor, who opened her news conference by acknowledging “decades of unjust treatment” of Black people.
Council members raise concerns
Hours earlier, multiple council members found fault with aspects of Seattle’s response to the weekend demonstrations while expressing distress over police killings.
Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said what she saw downtown Saturday and conversations with other protesters have led her to believe officers didn’t always provide crowds with advance notice before firing tear gas and flash bang grenades.
The police department’s manual says an incident commander, before ordering a crowd to disperse, should consider placing officers at the rear of the crowd to verify the order will be heard by all; recite the order, warning about the potential by officers of chemical agents; allow reasonable time for the crowd to disperse, and repeat the order.
The manual recommends all those instructions “as feasible,” Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower noted in an email. Dispersal orders were issued at Fifth Avenue and Pine Street at 3:10 p.m. Saturday, according to the department’s timeline.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda echoed Herbold’s point at the council’s regularly scheduled Monday morning briefing, condemning what she described as a “militarized response” that included “parents running down the street holding their toddlers under their arms.”
Mosqueda added: “People were standing on the street not causing harm, not assaulting officers, not harming property, in those videos that we saw, there was no dispersal warning.”
Councilmember Tammy Morales said many constituents have told her “‘they were engaged in peaceful demonstration and things were fine until the SWAT team arrived.”
Asked about the dispersal-warning issue during her news conference, Durkan said she would learn more.
“This is the first Councilmember Herbold has raised that. I don’t believe she called me or the chief,” the mayor said. “We will look at all the facts and whether the deployment of less-than-lethal force was in compliance with all regulations.”
Herbold also cited videos posted on social media that show alarming incidents involving cops. “There is a lot of video evidence out there that confirms that our city has work to do as it relates to properly handling interactions with members of the community, particularly at times like this,” she said.
“I personally witnessed the unacceptable escalation of violence from the Seattle Police Department,” Councilmember Kshama Sawant added. “It is tragically ironic that … a protest against police brutality and violence was met with police brutality and violence.”
The incident that’s drawn by far the most complaints, according to OPA, involved an officer’s alleged pepper-spraying of a young child during Saturday afternoon’s demonstrations. A video posted on social media that quickly went viral Saturday captured the child screaming and writhing among protesters, some of whom poured water and milk into the child’s eyes. The video did not capture the alleged act.
A police officer who was accused on social media of carrying out the spraying was not actually involved, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg said.
“My understanding is that he has been the subject of threats and his personal information has been posted,” Myerberg said. “But he didn’t do it. We’ve already determined that by reviewing video. Another officer was involved in that incident, and we’re going to investigate the incident fully.”
OPA has yet to interview the child, the family or others who may have witnessed the alleged spraying. “We want to hear from them and anyone who has information,” he said.
Among the other complaints that also will be investigated are allegations that officers punched one person on the ground and placed their knees on the necks of two other people while making arrests; covered up their badge numbers; failed to record their actions on body cameras; pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters; failed to secure rifles in their vehicles; broke windows at a Target store; used a flashbang grenade that significantly injured a woman’s thumb.
Myerberg said the investigations will be completed quickly “due to the immense public concern.” The OPA will provide public updates on its Twitter account, he said.
To open Monday morning’s discussion, González said, “We stand with those who continue to be subjected to police violence … and our challenge is to figure out every day how to prevent it from happening again.”
Durkan has said allegations of misconduct by police will be investigated and accountability will be meted out where necessary. She also has defended the department’s response, rejecting the idea that officers contributed to the tensions that erupted Saturday. González and Herbold have asked the Durkan administration and Best for a briefing on the protests Wednesday.
Beyond the city’s response to the demonstrations, some council members said they wanted to take another look at police accountability in Seattle more broadly.
The Durkan administration last month asked U.S. District Judge James Robart to clear the way for the city to wrap up federal oversight of its police reforms. Seattle has since 2012 been subject to a consent decree related to excessive force and biased policing and is scheduled to bargain a new contract this year with its unionized police officers.
Morales said Monday the city should withdraw its consent decree motion and should restore in the new union contract accountability measures that were excised in 2018.