When she heard the explosions, Rebeca Muñiz knew her plans to participate in peaceful demonstrations in downtown Seattle last Saturday effectively had been blown apart, too.
A few blocks from where she and dozens of other people had gathered at Westlake Park to hear speakers protesting George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Seattle officers in riot gear had begun tossing flash-bang grenades — military-style percussion devices often used to control crowds — toward a throng of demonstrators.
A few moments later, Muñiz recalled, she was helping a woman with a badly injured hand who emerged from a torrent of fleeing bodies. The woman told Muñiz and medics that her thumb and forefinger, gouged and streaming with blood, had been struck by shrapnel from one of the police grenades, Muñiz said.
“I don’t know why police would even think about using a flash-bang in a situation like that,” said Muñiz, 28, a hospital worker who photographed the woman’s injuries. “There were children around, there were families with strollers, and from where I was, the crowd didn’t seem out of control. I didn’t hear [police] give anybody any warning.”
Deployment of flash-bang grenades, blast balls and other devices to control and disperse crowds have become a hallmark of the mayhem that has marred recent demonstrations in Seattle and other U.S. cities in the wake of Floyd’s death. The Seattle Police Department’s use of the crowd-control tool date back at least several years and has drawn past scrutiny and concern from civilian watchdogs.
But despite recommendations by the city’s Community Police Commission in 2016 that the agency suspend use of the grenades until they could be more thoroughly assessed, Seattle police never completed the requested study, and continue to use the devices in its repertoire of crowd-policing tactics, according to one former commissioner.
“There’s never been a systemic review of if and when these kinds of devices could be appropriately used, as we were calling for,” said Lisa Daugaard, executive director of the Public Defender Association and then a co-chair of the police commission.
A Seattle police spokesman said this week he could not readily answer questions about the department’s internal assessments, training protocols and documented use of flash-bang grenades, blast balls or similar devices due to the “dynamic nature of the ongoing demonstrations.”
“At this time, our subject matter experts on force training, tactics, and equipment are all currently deployed,” the spokesman, Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, said in an email.
Mike Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The department generally has said officers have acted appropriately in response to the latest demonstrations, and police commanders previously have described crowd-control grenades as a permitted, “less lethal” tool not meant to hurt anyone, but rather to confuse, distract and scare agitated and uncooperative crowds into dispersing.
But the devices have caused several documented injuries in Seattle — including at least one to an officer — and several dozen examples in nationwide news accounts over the past two decades of people being wounded, maimed or killed by flash-bang-type devices.
The hand injury witnessed by Muñiz last weekend is among at least 10 cases of complaints about Seattle police’s response to Saturday’s demonstrations now under investigation by the Office of Police Accountability, the city’s civilian-led police watchdog.
“In my opinion, these devices are dangerous and not appropriate for general use as a tactic for crowd control,” said Pierce Murphy, a former OPA director who examined multiple complaints about police crowd-control projectiles and once asked the Seattle department to reevaluate their use. “If they’re deployed close to people, they can certainly cause significant physical injuries.”
Some police tactical experts, however, say such devices often are far less dangerous than other tools, and can help police create space, buy time and make better decisions in unruly demonstrations where they’re likely outnumbered.
“I feel when used appropriately, they are very, very safe,” said Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, a police-training group.
“Distance equals time”
Flashbang grenades were first put into practice by the British Special Air Services, which were involved in a counter-terrorism raid of a hijacked Lufthansa jetliner in Somalia in 1977, Eells said. Since then, the devices and similar ones have been used more frequently in police operations, he said.
The classic flash-bang — technically not a grenade — typically contains a fuse head, with magnesium powder encased in gunmetal that weighs about a pound and a half, said Eells, a retired Colorado Springs police commander and tactical trainer who has deployed the devices hundreds of times. It’s primarily utilized by SWAT teams to create the distraction with a disorienting loud noise and bright flash as officers make entry into a hostage or barricade situation, he said.
Offshoots of flash-bang grenades have been designed more specifically for crowd control in recent years. The devices typically consist of a fusehead with a small cartridge, a striker and a firing pin atop a rubber body. Like a grenade, when the pin is pulled and the device is tossed, it initiates and fragments on contact.
Five varieties are typically used in riot situations, including those capable of only making noise and light; sting-ball or blast-ball grenades that spray small rubber balls; devices that emit pepper spray or tear gas; or a combination of some or all of those, Eells said.
In situations with unruly crowds, the devices are meant to help police more effectively use resources by splintering large crowds into smaller groups and creating a “reactionary gap” that can improve policing decisions, and they are far less likely to cause injury than a 39-inch hickory wood riot baton, Eells said.
“What a lot of people don’t recognize, these can be deployed in a way that allows law enforcement to remain separate from the crowd they’re trying to manage,” he said. “Distance equals time, and time equals better decision-making for how I, as an officer, should act given the circumstances.”
Calls for reform
News accounts cite examples of serious injuries and deaths tied to the devices dating back decades: A woman killed by an exploding flash-bang grenade during a Los Angeles Police drug raid in 1984; a 7-year-old girl who was shot amid smoke and mayhem of a flashbang deployed during a Detroit police SWAT raid in 2010; a toddler injured critically after one landed near him during a raid in Habersham County, Georgia, in 2014.
During the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri — which erupted after a white officer shot and killed a Black man — protesters and a journalist reported burns and other injuries from police crowd-control devices. In 2018, the Portland Police Bureau temporarily suspended using the devices after several people reported serious injuries during a Patriot Prayer rally and counter-demonstration.
In Seattle, the two former civilian police watchdogs said they don’t dispute there are instances when police need such tools, but question whether widespread deployment of the devices as a tactic for general crowd control is safe or necessary.
Following violent clashes between Seattle police and protesters during May Day demonstrations in 2015, Murphy, then the OPA director, recommended in a letter to then-police Chief Kathleen O’Toole that her department “reevaluate” and limit the use of blast balls grenades during demonstrations.
The intense heat and potential for shrapnel from the devices couldn’t be controlled and posed dangers to peaceful demonstrators, as police were using them in big crowds in confined spaces, Murphy said.
“This is contrary to our understanding of how officers have been trained to deploy blast balls, specifically so that they detonate in open areas to create greater distance between the police and a crowd,” he wrote to the chief.
The department’s response, Murphy recalled, was that “with proper deployment, these were relatively harmless devices that were effective for crowd management.”
The city’s Community Police Commission separately requested in 2016 “an immediate and public review” of the department’s policies for blast-ball grenades after injuries were reported during several demonstrations.
“Until such time as blast balls’ propensity for causing injury (including specific evidence from the past two years in Seattle), and their appropriate use given that risk, have been publicly weighed, we ask that SPD suspend their use,” the panel’s co-chairs, Daugaard and the Rev. Harriett Walden, wrote in a letter to police and city officials.
“That study was not done and there’s never been a response at any level,” Daugaard said this week. She said the commission repeatedly tried but failed to add policing protocols during demonstrations to the Seattle department’s required reforms under a federal consent decree.
During a city council briefing Monday, Councilmember Lisa Herbold said she’d received reports that — contrary to department policy to announce dispersal orders and give warnings before using flash-bang grenades and tear gas — “people confirmed for me that their experience was that they were not receiving advance notice or receiving orders to disperse.”
OPA director Andrew Myerberg said his office is now investigating those complaints.
To Daugaard, complaints about a communication breakdown between police and demonstrators is a more critical issue than concerns about flash-bang grenades or any specific police crowd-control device.
“It’s not just about blast balls, it’s any similar device that causes pain and feels like an attack,” she said.
“Once you start using those, you’re really starting to shut down other avenues that could help you accomplish a legitimate goal that protesters perhaps would help you accomplish had you effectively communicated with them.”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.