Evidence shows blast balls exploded in proximity to people, not all of whom were engaged in destruction of property or posed a threat to public safety, according to an internal report.

Share story

Seattle police should re-evaluate how they use blast balls to disperse crowds during demonstrations, according to a report issued Thursday evening by the department’s internal watchdog agency.

The Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) looked into complaints by five people who said they were injured by blast balls at this year’s violent May Day anti-capitalist march on Capitol Hill.

Its report found no wrongdoing by individual officers or specific injuries tied to the devices.

But evidence shows blast balls “exploded in extremely close proximity to people, not all of whom were engaged in destruction of property or posed a threat to public safety,” says the report signed by the OPA’s civilian director, Pierce Murphy.

“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.” Blast balls are small explosive devices that detonate in two stages; the final one involves a larger explosion of flash powder.

Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said Thursday night that she took the report seriously and that she already commissioned a study by independent, national experts. The study, expected to be completed early next year, will evaluate the department’s crowd management.

“Is there room for improvement: absolutely,” she said, noting her longtime interest in the subject dating to her time working on a progressive policing strategy in Northern Ireland after the “Good Friday” peace agreement in 1998.

O’Toole said the dynamics of demonstrations changed after last year’s decision by a Ferguson, Mo., grand jury not to indict a white police officer in the fatal shooting of a young black man.

Police found themselves not just overseeing protests but becoming the target of demonstrations, she said.

“They’ve become more tense,” O’Toole added.

The OPA investigation found that officers were ordered to disperse the crowd during the May 1 evening march and authorized to use force in response to vandalism and violence directed at police.

Still, the report says, SPD should “rethink its approach to planning and providing policing services in relation to protests and demonstrations.”

Referring to the independent study, the report urged SPD, in collaboration with experts, to look beyond traditional law-enforcement methods.

“We note that law-enforcement agencies in the United States have relied on the military and those with military experience for many of the tactics, equipment, weapons and training used in dealing with protests, demonstrations and crowd-control scenarios,” the report says.

“While these traditional approaches have much to offer, we believe that SPD would benefit from employing an intentionally wide lens in its search for best practices in this field, including what other countries and regions have found successful in supporting the free expression of public protests while limiting the use of force necessary to promote public safety,” it says.

O’Toole said she has long favored a tiered approach to dealing with crowd behavior.

In the last year of protests in Seattle, she said, there have been less than 100 arrests with no serious injuries to the public or police.