Amid heckling from the audience, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole told the City Council |Monday that her department’s primary mission during the recent protests against police brutality was to ensure the safety of participants, officers and others who were nearby.
“The bottom line is we just don’t want to see anybody get hurt,” O’Toole said, defending the department’s tactics during 17 separate days of street demonstrations that occurred after a Ferguson, Mo., grand jury decided in November not to indict a white police officer in the fatal shooting of a young black man.
O’Toole noted that only 25 people were arrested, there was little property damage and no serious injuries, contrasting that to worse outcomes in other cities.
Most Read Local Stories
- More wildfire smoke heads into Puget Sound region before rain starts to clear the air
- Wildfire news updates, September 17: What to know today about the destructive fires in Washington state and on the West Coast
- Smoke expected to drift away from Seattle area, but weather drama isn't over
- Seattle is in smoke. What's happening to the birds? VIEW
- Coronavirus daily news updates, September 17: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world
But before O’Toole and two of her top commanders began their remarks, the council temporarily suspended its weekly briefing Monday morning after dozens of people upset with the Police Department’s handling of the protests began to disrupt the proceedings with shouting and singing.
Several council members abruptly left the council chambers after audience members broke up an unrelated presentation by representatives from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma that preceded O’Toole’s appearance.
Many people who had shared concerns about police conduct during a public-comment period at the beginning of the briefing raised their fists in the air and sang the words, “Justice for Mike Brown,” a reference to the man killed in Ferguson.
During the public-comment period, speakers chastised the Police Department for responding to mostly peaceful demonstrations by dispatching officers armed with pepper spray and dressed in riot gear and by making unjustified arrests.
Former state Senate candidate Jess Spear, of the Socialist Alternative party, asked why officers had “used their bikes as weapons” against demonstrators.
Throughout the ports’ presentation, members of the audience stood with their hands up, a gesture associated with the uproar after the Ferguson decision.
Cries erupted throughout the chambers, including, “I can’t breathe,” key words considered by a Staten Island, N.Y., grand jury that chose not to indict a white officer in the choking death of a black man.
After one woman in the front drowned out the discussion and the singing began, some council members walked out while Councilmember Kshama Sawant remained behind with her hands up in support of the crowd.
The council returned a few minutes later to begin the police briefing after Councilmember Bruce Harrell quietly conferred with several demonstrators, urging them to dial down the disruption so police officials could answer questions.
O’Toole, speaking through periodic shouts from the crowd that others tried to quell, said her department’s foremost goal was to facilitate peaceful protests and allow people to express their First Amendment rights, all while protecting all members of the public and property.
After the first Ferguson protest in the city, when officers were in regular uniforms, they donned helmets and riot gear after a few protesters hurled bricks and flammable projectiles, she said.
O’Toole reported that the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which handles internal investigations, was looking into one complaint stemming from the protests.
That case involves a use of force, OPA Director Pierce Murphy said afterward. Of 10 other complaints that were filed, six were too general to open a specific case, one was a commendation and three involved demeanor issues that were referred to police supervisors, Murphy said.
Deputy Chief Carmen Best told the council that when officers used force, it was mostly at the lowest levels.
She also said, “We certainly didn’t tell protesters where to go” unless faced with criminal activity or safety issues, drawing a chorus of shouts from those in the crowd who appeared to believe that police had herded demonstrators.
Sawant and Councilmember Nick Licata directed pointed questions at police officials about the decision to send bike officers to Bellevue to help that city’s police deal with a “Black Lives Matter” protest Dec. 20.
Assistant Chief Nick Metz said that protest was expected to draw more people than it did and that Seattle has a mutual-aid contract with Bellevue. He said Bellevue police had assisted Seattle in the past when asked for help.
O’Toole, responding to a concern raised by Sawant, said despite extra resources devoted to the protests, the department continued to respond to serious crimes elsewhere.
Sawant had pressed the chief to justify the department’s spending more than $1.6 million to “harass peaceful protesters” rather than to address other public-safety priorities.
After the briefing, O’Toole reiterated her safety message during an impromptu sidewalk discussion with several protesters that occurred outside of City Hall.
Patiently fielding questions, she told the group she was open to suggestions for handling protests and urged them to officially report any complaints.
The demonstrators complained after she left that she gave bureaucratic answers.
Late Monday, Council President Tim Burgess sent an email to O’Toole apologizing for the shouting and disruptions during the meeting and expressing regret for not being prepared to control it.