Interim Seattle police Chief Adrian Diaz has overturned a recommendation from the city’s police-accountability office and decided not to discipline an officer who gave the orders for tear gas and blast balls to be used against protesters after a tug-of-war over a pink umbrella during last summer’s demonstrations.
Diaz said in a Wednesday letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Council President M. Lorena González that his decision in the high-profile confrontation was “grounded first and foremost in principles of fundamental fairness.” The officer who gave the directive amid the struggle over the umbrella shouldn’t be held responsible because “decisions were made at levels of command above” him.
“With an eye towards reconciliation and ever improvement, I welcome these critical reviews and the difficult conversations they invite, but at the same time, cannot lose sight of the abjectly unprecedented and rapidly dynamic circumstances at hand,” Diaz wrote.
The “pink umbrella” clash unfolded near the Police Department’s East Precinct on June 1, when some demonstrators — who stood facing a line of officers across a barricade — started opening umbrellas to guard against pepper spray police threatened to deploy, videos show. An officer standing in the police line then grabbed a pink umbrella from one of the protesters, setting off a tug of war that sparked an eruption of tear gas, flash-bang devices and pepper spray, sent people running and eventually prompted police to declare a riot.
It was a prominent moment during the summer protests against police brutality — one that the city’s Office of Police Accountability decided was uncalled for given that the “weight of the evidence shows that the large majority of the crowd was not acting violently at the time,” the OPA said in its January findings.
When the office released its findings, it sustained two policy violations against the incident commander, who has not been named by SPD or the police-accountability office. The OPA’s review didn’t substantiate police explanations that the umbrella posed a threat to officers, or that it could have concealed illegal activity. Police contentions that demonstrators were throwing objects and that the department had learned of unspecified threats to burn down the East Precinct also didn’t justify the widespread crowd dispersal at the time, the investigation found.
OPA Director Andrew Myerberg said in a statement Wednesday night that his office stands by its decision and believes its findings are supported by the evidence.
“However, as set forth in the Accountability Ordinance and while a rare occurrence, the Chief of Police has the ultimate right to disagree with OPA in full or in part and/or to decline to impose discipline as happened here,” Myerberg said. “Given this, even though I do not concur in the rationale or result, I accept Chief Diaz’s decision as within the scope of his authority.
Diaz added in his letter that because the ongoing protests and COVID-19 pandemic presented extra challenges to staffing and communications, the Police Department’s planning, command and operational levels were “overwhelmed.”
He also noted that because of “the complexity of incident command in such circumstances,” the incident commander did “not have the same benefit of time, video compilations, after-the-fact reporting, and the interviews of many in making real-time decisions in the midst of the unprecedented circumstances at hand.”
Diaz ended the letter by saying he “has not shied away from holding officers and commanders alike accountable and imposing discipline that is appropriate for the circumstances.” Since taking over as chief in early September, he’s fired eight employees for dishonesty, misuse of position and violating bias-free policing policy, among other actions. Two others retired in lieu of being fired, he said.
The city’s Community Police Commission, which was mandated under a 2012 federal consent decree, said in a statement Wednesday night it was concerned that Diaz’s decision “denies justice to thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters who marched against police brutality only to be met by indiscriminate police violence.”
“There have been tens of thousands of complaints against SPD over the past year, but only a handful of investigations have met the high bar OPA has set to find police officers have committed misconduct,” the statement said. “This case met that high bar. Chief Diaz’s decision to overturn OPA’s decision is detrimental to community trust in SPD and Seattle’s entire police accountability system.”
Staff reporters Lewis Kamb and Daniel Beekman contributed to this report.