When is a riot not a riot? When it happens in Seattle. Or anywhere in Washington, for that matter, where riots don’t exist, in the law at least.

In 2013, the state legislature removed the word “riot” from the law pretty much altogether, instead defining violent illegal gatherings as “criminal mischief.”

Still, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has used the term multiple times in recent months as justification for dispersing crowds of protesters who have gathered to protest police violence and racism after the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which sparked national outrage and calls for reforms and defunding of police departments around the country.

“When SPD uses the term ‘riot’ as a predicate to issuing an order to disperse, it does so synonymously with the term ‘criminal mischief,’ as defined in state law,” said Sgt. Lauren Truscott, the department’s public-information officer. “This definition of ‘criminal mischief’ is identical to that previously applied to the term ‘riot,’ up until amendment of the statute in 2014.”

Seattle police declared a riot the afternoon of July 25 after a morning of protests and marches that involved vandalism and arson by some in a large crowd of as many as 5,000 protesters that settled on Capitol Hill near the SPD’s embattled East Precinct. At that point, according to witnesses and sworn statements filed in court, the SPD declared a riot and then moved aggressively into the mass of people, catching many in a pincerlike trap where officers used crowd-control weapons indiscriminately.

People within the protests were setting fires, including burning several trailers at the construction site for the new youth jail. A number of businesses also were vandalized.

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Armor-clad officers moved into the large crowd from at least two directions, ordering people to disperse while deploying pepper spray, blast balls and “blue nose” foam-tipped projectiles. According to witnesses, the officers targeted not just protesters but legal observers, civilian medics and journalists. At least 49 demonstrators were arrested and others hurt. Police said at least 59 officers were injured.

Police and protesters clash July 25 near Seattle Central Community College in Seattle. A large group of protesters were marching in Seattle in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality and racial injustice. (Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press)
Police and protesters clash July 25 near Seattle Central Community College in Seattle. A large group of protesters were marching in Seattle in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality and racial injustice. (Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press)

At that point, earlier police actions during protests already had resulted in lawyers for Black Lives Matter Seattle King County (BLM) successfully obtaining a federal injunction barring police from using force — be it tear gas, batons or pepper spray — against peaceful protesters. After the confrontation on July 25, BLM sought to hold SPD in contempt of that order and the department, in turn, agreed to abide by stringent rules of engagement that protect journalists and other observers and specifically states, “Declaring a protest to be an unlawful assembly or a riot does not exempt the City from its obligation” not to use indiscriminate force.

“The indiscriminate use of force by the Seattle Police Department on July 25 that followed their riot declaration was deeply troubling, leading us to believe that clearer guidance was required,” said BLM lawyer Robert Chang, with the Seattle University School of Law’s Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality.

The department has publicly declared a riot at least three other times, including during protests aimed at the Seattle Police Officers Guild headquarters in the Sodo district on Aug. 16.

Seattle crowd-control policy allows for a scene commander to declare an unlawful gathering, and issue a “public safety order” telling the crowd to leave the area. The policy provides a citation to the Seattle Municipal Code for the crime of failure to disperse.

The Legislature in 2013 amended the state criminal code to change the crime of “rioting” to “criminal mischief,” a gross misdemeanor whose elements are similar to the crime of failure to disperse: being in a group of three or more people and using or threatening to use force against people or property. The change in the law took place the next year.

The crime is a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. If the individual is armed with a weapon, it can be charged as a class C felony and carry a prison sentence.