Lawyers for the Seattle Police Department late Wednesday asked a federal judge to reject allegations that officers intentionally or indiscriminately used force against peaceful protesters and violated a court injunction during raucous and at-times violent weekend Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations.
The city said its officers followed the injunction’s prohibitions on the use of pepper spray, blast balls or less-than-lethal projectile weapons against crowds that gathered downtown and on Capitol Hill Saturday night. Police claim that within the mostly peaceful crowd of as many as 7,000 people “were armed and armored individuals with a plan and agenda to do harm to the public, injure police and damage property along the way.”
“Given this, it turned into a riot,” wrote attorney Robert Christie, whose firm has been retained by the city to represent the department and its officers in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County by the American Civil Liberties Union of Seattle and others.
The Seattle Police Department reported that 59 officers were injured by bottles, rocks, bricks, fireworks and other projectiles thrown by some in the crowd. Nearly 50 people were arrested and journalists, legal observers and others claim they were targeted by officers.
On several different dates since protests began in late May, police have used tear gas, pepper spray, batons, blast balls and less-than-lethal projectiles against large crowds of demonstrators. In early June, rowdy protesters sparred with officers for several nights, eventually driving the department out of its East Precinct, which became the center of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP).
BLM sued, leading to a hearing where U.S. District Judge Richard Jones criticized the department for violating the First Amendment rights of thousands of protesters and issued a restraining order prohibiting Seattle police from “employing chemical irritants or projectiles of any kind against persons peacefully engaging in protests or demonstrations. ” The injunction is in effect until the end of September
The court said force had to be directed “to protect against a specific imminent threat of physical harm” to the officers, other individuals or property. SPD, in its court response, said its officers were repeatedly reminded of those restrictions and followed them.
But sometimes peaceful protesters got in the way, according to the city’s response.
“The fact that a peaceful protester was affected, for example, by pepper spray or a blast ball is not sufficient to demonstrate” a violation of an injunction, the city said.
“The issue is not whether a peaceful protester experienced a police use of force; the issue is whether the officers, at the time he or she deployed that force, did so in a manner that was necessary, reasonable, proportionate and targeted at a specific threat to a person or property,” the city’s lawyers claim.
“The fact that a peaceful protester was impacted by a lawful, compliant deployment [of force] is not a violation of the court’s order.”
Attorneys for Black Lives Matter-Seattle King County earlier this week asked Jones to hold the Seattle Police Department in contempt of the injunction, claiming police “ambushed peaceful protesters” and trampled journalists and medics trying to help the injured.
In documents filed with the court earlier this week, BLM included 24 sworn declarations from protesters and others who claim they were targeted by police for doing nothing more than chanting or standing in the crowd.
But the city said many of those declarations describe or contain links to social media video or photographs that must be taken in context with a very dynamic and fast-moving situation. Some are taken out of context, the city alleges, and some don’t show what the lawyers for Black Lives Matter say they do.
The city focused particularly on the declaration of an intensive care nurse named Elise Barrett, who is seen being blasted in the face with pepper spray as she tugs on a man being pinned against a wall by a police officer with a baton.
Barrett said she was trying to pull an injured protester to safety. Police allege she was trying to “de-arrest” the man and was interfering with police. The incident was caught on video and posted to Twitter.
In her declaration, Barrett said “ was not a threat, I was not dangerous, I was not breaking anything, or hurting anybody,” she said. “I am a nurse.”
The department included a transcript of an interview with a television reporter in which Barrett states she was worried police were going to hurt the man and she was trying to “pull him away.”
The department included a PowerPoint with enhanced photos from the videos it alleges prove that a number of the incidents of force cited by BLM and the ACLU were either unintentional or justified, and that none of them violated the injunction.
The motion asks for additional safeguards to be put in place to prevent police from using blast balls, tear gas, projectile weapons, batons or other less-than-lethal weapons indiscriminately, and asks the court to order police particularly to leave journalists, medics and legal observers alone. It also asks for the city to pay its attorney and court fees.
Police said “there is no evidence to support” allegations that journalists or legal observers have been targeted or the objects of police retaliation.
The city asks Jones to dismiss the motion to find its actions in contempt, or give the police department 60 days to gather additional information and evidence.