All three agencies charged with oversight of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) on Friday issued reports rejecting a total ban on crowd-control weapons such as tear gas, blast balls and projectile launchers called for by a new Seattle City Council ordinance.
The Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Community Police Commission (CPC) to varying degrees say police should have some access to these weapons and be able to use them, just not against crowds engaged in peaceful protests.
The reports were commissioned by U.S. District Judge James Robart, who oversees a settlement agreement between the Seattle Police Department and the Department of Justice, which sued the city in 2012 after an investigation found SPD officers routinely used excessive force during arrests, and showed disturbing, if inconclusive, evidence of racially biased policing.
Since then, the federal judge and a court-appointed monitor have overseen a nearly top-to-bottom overhaul of the department’s force policies, procedures, reporting and data collection.
The City Council, after passing the ordinance unanimously in June, submitted it to the court to determine if it complied with the consent decree, and Robart asked the three so-called “accountability partners” — the OIG, OPA and CPC — to submit their take on the ordinance’s impact.
In the meantime, however, Robart has issued a temporary restraining order preventing the ordinance from taking effect and asked the “accountability partners” to review its possible impact on the court-mandated police reforms.
The OPA and the OIG, two civilian-run agencies responsible for investigating allegations of officer misconduct and offering independent oversight, both warn that taking so-called less-lethal options from officers in some circumstances could lead police to use more force to quell a riot or protest that involves illegal conduct or arrest an armed subject.
The CPC concluded that after the indiscriminate use of these weapons on peaceful protesters downtown and on Capitol Hill following the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, SPD and its officers can’t be trusted with them.
At the same time, the CPC wrote, “The City should ensure the Crowd Control Weapons Ban allows for the use of some appropriate less lethal options, with strong policies and accountability mechanisms, outside of crowd control.
“There is no immediate solution for the systemic racism and willfully unaddressed bias that pervade the system of policing,” the CPC report said. “But if access to less lethal options during patrol prevents even one death, it serves an immediate purpose … we are concerned about the effect immediately taking those weapons away could have.”
Inspector General Lisa Judge wrote a 90-page report that those weapons should be allowed for use against rioters in some cases.
“An outright ban in all circumstances, even those posing a life safety risk, leaves officers without sufficient tools to address violence or disperse a riot,” she wrote. “SPD’s choice then becomes using tools less suited to the task that may increase the risk of injury to protesters and officer,” or force police to retreat from a situation where the community is endangered.
“As the likely outcome for either option presents significant risk to community and officers, OIG does not support a complete ban of all less lethal weapons,” Judge wrote.
Likewise, the OPA said a total ban on the weapons could easily result in officers having to escalate a situation by using more force, rather than less, which the OPA believes would violate the federal court consent decree.
OPA gave a trio of instances where the use of chemical agents, blast balls and “blue nose” 40 mm projectiles were used to take armed individuals into custody who otherwise might have been more seriously injured had those weapons not been available.
“A complete ban risks escalating dangerous situations that SPD officers are called upon to handle outside of the crowd control context,” wrote OPA Director Andrew Myerberg. “OPA is committed to minimizing the use of force by SPD, but in cases where force is necessary, the use of these tools may help officers avoid using a higher level of force.”
Moreover, he said, if the City Council goes through with plans to reduce SPD staffing, officers likely won’t be able to respond to calls in the numbers they currently do. “The lack of backing officers, which is an element of the de-escalation policy, will make it even more important for officers to have less-lethal tools at their disposal,” Myerberg wrote.
All three agencies are currently involved in a “Sentinel Event Review” of the Police Department’s response in late May and June to massive protests downtown and on Capitol Hill, which saw repeated clashes between peaceful marchers and riot-gear-clad police using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and batons. Another federal judge, in a lawsuit filed by Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, has already found evidence that police violated the civil rights of thousands of individuals during those incidents, and has enjoined the department from using force against peaceful protesters.
Council spokeswoman Stephanie Guzman-Barrera said late Friday that she expected it would take time for council members to review the reports, and that they would not have immediate comment.
At the same time, small groups of individuals within the protests have thrown rocks, water bottles, fireworks and other items at police, and damaged dozens of Seattle businesses. Police say a number of officers have been injured.
According to the OIG report, a review of preliminary use of force data filed by SPD officers showed at least 47 uses of less-lethal projectile launchers; one use of a canister flash-bang device; at least 163 uses of blast balls; 176 uses of OC spray; and 48 reported uses of CS tear gas.
The OIG noted these numbers do not include uses of force by other agencies providing mutual aid to SPD, such as the King County Sheriff’s Office or Bellevue Police.
The CPC report gave the harshest review of the SPD, saying the department has refused to learn from its mistakes or recognize the systemic racism and mechanisms of oppression that have informed its policies for decades.
The CPC concluded that while the protests over the killing of George Floyd may have sparked the Seattle protests, “We cannot continue to reference it as being the lone reason that thousands of Seattleites gathered to exercise their First Amendment rights.
“Seattle has its own extensive history of police violence,” the CPC report said. “Community members gathered in mass during a global pandemic to hold space for this outrage. Nevertheless, the last two months of constitutionally protected demonstrations have been met with adversarial tactics.”