Lawyers for the city of Seattle on Friday rejected claims that police officers have violated court orders during recent protests where officers have cleared crowds with blast balls, pepper spray and foam-tipped projectiles.
While protesters allege police have used those weapons indiscriminately, the city argues police were responding to threats to officers or buildings.
“The reality is that not all participants in these protests were peaceful,” wrote attorney Robert Christie, whose firm represents the city.
After a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and other groups on behalf of Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County and several individuals, U.S. District Judge Richard Jones issued orders limiting police use of crowd-control weapons to cases where officers need to take “necessary, reasonable, proportional and targeted action” to respond to specific imminent threats.
The ACLU and others filed a motion this week arguing police officers violated those orders.
“Police threw blast balls indiscriminately into the middle of the densely packed crowd. Two of them exploded near my feet, painfully hitting my feet and leaving burn marks on my sneakers,” one protester said in a sworn declaration. “I wanted to run away from the resulting gas, but we were corralled in tightly with one another so there was nowhere to go.”
The city’s response argues protester accounts “lack context” and information police had at the time. Some officer behavior raised in the ACLU filing is beyond the scope of the judge’s orders, the city argues.
“The issue is not whether crowd control devices were used and impacted members of the crowd,” but whether officers’ use of force violated the orders, the city’s filing said.
The city says the Seattle Police Department has regularly reminded officers about the “rules of engagement” for crowd-control weapons.
The ACLU and other groups this week pointed to four recent protests to argue police were not using crowd-control weapons in the restricted ways allowed by the court.
As part of the city’s response, an SPD lieutenant and captain filed declarations arguing police officers faced threats at those protests that allowed them to use crowd-control weapons.
At an Aug. 26 protest outside a Washington State Patrol building near Eastlake, police said protester vehicles blocked access to a nearby fire station.
In pushing the crowd out of the area, SPD Lt. John Brooks said an officer used pepper spray because people in the crowd were attempting to stop the officer from making an arrest. Another officer threw a blast ball after seeing someone throw objects at officers, Brooks said.
The ACLU argued police used crowd-control weapons on people who were already leaving the area and said, “SPD blocked the entryways to WSP and the fire station, not protesters.”
On Labor Day, a group of protesters marched to the Seattle Police Officers Guild office in Sodo, where officers rode into the crowd, setting off a melee, and then used blast balls and pepper spray on the crowd.
Brooks said police had “reports that a member of the crowd was readying a Molotov cocktail” and knew where the person was in the crowd. When officers rode in on their bikes, people in the crowd attempted to stop them from making an arrest and one person hit an officer with a pipe, Brooks alleged.
The ACLU filing argued that officers used pepper spray and blast balls indiscriminately, including against protesters who were complying with police orders.
On Sept. 22, officers in vehicles with lights and sirens responded to a protest near the East Precinct on Capitol Hill. Brooks said police worried a person who got out of a pickup truck near the precinct was trying to set up an explosive. (The court documents do not indicate an explosive was found.)
The next night, some people in a protest crowd broke parking meters and windows of two Starbucks locations as they marched from Capitol Hill to downtown. Officers arrived, made arrests and used pepper spray. Later, a crowd gathered near the East Precinct, someone threw a firework at the precinct and people started a fire in the street. Officers eventually used blast balls and pepper spray to push the crowd out of the area and into neighborhood side streets.
Video later showed an officer rolling his bike over the head of a person lying on the ground. A separate video from another point in the night showed someone in the crowd hitting an officer in the head with a bat.
The ACLU alleged police that night “incessantly deployed” explosive devices, “blanketed the streets” with chemicals and injured protesters.
SPD Captain Matt Allen said in a declaration officers were responding to people throwing bottles, cans and rocks and to information they were receiving.
At one point, police “received information from our intel personnel that the group was talking about ‘doing some cooking,’ ” Allen’s declaration says. “I did not know what that meant exactly, but it was concerning” because of previous protests where people threw fireworks or Molotov cocktails, Allen said.
The ACLU and other attorneys representing protesters proposed that the city require in-person training for officers about the court’s orders and file notices in court every time SPD deploys crowd-control weapons. The city called the proposed remedies “well beyond the bounds” of the judge’s orders.