The Seattle Police Department should ban the use of tear gas, rewrite its crowd-control policies and remind officers that they are there to protect protesters’ rights, not violate them, according to a report that was set to be presented Wednesday to the mayor’s office by former monitor Merrick Bobb.
The review of SPD’s use of crowd-control weapons was requested by Mayor Jenny Durkan and the federal judge who has overseen the department’s seven-year reform effort to satisfy a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice over 2011 findings that SPD officers routinely used excessive force.
Bobb, who acted as the court-appointed monitor of those efforts until his resignation two weeks ago, found “an apparent absence of an overall strategic plan” to deal with Seattle’s sudden and massive racial justice protests that erupted around the death of George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police on May 25. He concluded the department’s “crowd-management tactics were deficient,” in significant part because the SPD “lacked seasoned and well-trained commanders” capable of responding to the crisis.
“In the absence of the strategic plan and well-trained commanders, there was a lack of adequate preparation and training of rank-and-file police officers and their supervisors,” Bobb wrote. For instance, he said, officers were asked to use tear gas — one of the more dangerous weapons in a less-lethal arsenal — “without having been trained on how to use it.”
He suggested the formation of a new tactical unit that would “come up with strategies, education and training materials and levels of accountability up the chain of command.”
The department’s overall response to the protests this summer, he said, has been “ad hoc,” inconsistent and too often excessive.
The SPD is currently under an injunction issued by a federal judge in Seattle prohibiting the use of any force against peaceful protesters. The injunction sprang from a lawsuit filed by Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, following protests in May and June in which U.S. District Judge Richard Jones concluded that officers’ indiscriminate use of tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other less-lethal weapons had likely violated the rights of thousands of peaceful protesters gathered downtown and on Capitol Hill.
Meantime, the judge overseeing the consent decree has issued a restraining order preventing a new City Council ordinance from taking effect that would ban the use of many crowd-control weapons — including tear gas, pepper-spray and blast balls — used against protesters. The DOJ and the city argued that the ordinance violates de-escalation clauses in the consent decree and could result in police using more force, not less, in crowd-control situations.
Three other reports on the SPD’s use of crowd-control weapons — undertaken by the civilian-run Office of Police Accountability, the SPD’s Office of Inspector General and the Community Police Commission — have been submitted to Durkan and U.S. District Judge James Robart, who oversees the consent decree.
In his report, Bobb noted that the department has had plenty of opportunities to devise workable, constitutional crowd-control tactics over years of experience dating back to the World Trade Organization protests in 1999, the Occupy movement and dozens of May Day fracases and protests that often involved vandalism and attacks on police.
“In other words, SPD has seen much of this before and at an earlier time was able to ably manage crowds,” Bobb wrote.
But the department lost its crowd-control expert, retired Deputy Chief Chris Fowler, who had managed those events for years, and Bobb wrote that “SPD appears to have lacked the foresight to train individuals who could take over.”
Even so, Bobb noted that the circumstances, size and duration of the protests — combined with restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic — were factors that even an experienced commander and chief would have struggled with.
SPD is currently without a permanent police chief — Chief Carmen Best retired in protest over efforts by the City Council to cut the department budget and her salary. Bobb, who has said he would like to see a chief from outside the department when Interim Chief Adrian Diaz steps down, said it is imperative that the new chief prioritize adopting a comprehensive crowd-control policy and finding an experienced commander to implement it.
Bobb concluded that SPD and its officers showed “inadequate sensitivity” to the rights of people who showed up to protest peacefully, and to protesters who had been injured.
Bobb recognized that there were individuals interspersed throughout the crowds whose intent was to damage property or hurt police. However, he said SPD “did not seem to have an adequately developed plan to isolate” and arrest those individuals. As a result, swaths of peaceful protesters were caught up in the use of tear gas, pepper spray and blast balls.
Bobb, in addition to recommending that the department ban the use of tear gas, suggested a moratorium on the use of blast balls until the department changes its policies.
The former monitor said the SPD showed a lack of respect for the rights of journalists observing the protests, and medics trying to aid individuals who were injured.
“It was as if the rank and file of the SPD had not been taught that one never is to attack or prevent journalists from doing their job as long as it its possible to protect them and as long as they are not actually preventing the police to function,” Bobb wrote.
Bobb also was critical of the police department’s “too great a willingness to declare a riot” — followed by “indiscriminate and poorly controlled use” of less-lethal weapons — when the situation didn’t call for it.
The term “riot” doesn’t appear in state law, and SPD commanders were relying on a “criminal mischief” statute that allowed them to order the dispersal of any group of three or more individuals whose actions create a substantial risk of injury to people or damage to property.
Bobb believes that definition is too broad and suggests SPD rewrite its policies to limit the use of most crowd-control weapons to “violent and uncontrollable behavior by a substantial group or crowd of individuals.”
Bobb, the director of the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC) in Los Angeles, made it clear that he was no longer the court’s monitor for the consent decree and that his opinions should not be construed to reflect those of U.S. District Judge James Robart.
The report builds on comments made by Bobb when announcing his resignation as monitor. He concluded then that the department’s heavy-handed response during several of the protests has cost public goodwill and likely set the SPD back in its efforts to end federal oversight.
Editor’s note: The commenting thread on this story has been closed due to too many comments that violate our Code of Conduct.