When and how can police tell Sound Transit to close a train station? Officials are exploring that question after the closure of the SeaTac/Airport Station over the weekend while pro-immigration protesters were arriving.
Next time police ask to close a transit station during political protests, the request will be forwarded immediately to Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff and King County Metro Transit General Manager Rob Gannon.
Rogoff described the new protocol Monday afternoon, two days after a brief closure of the SeaTac/Airport Station, at the request of Port of Seattle security officials, as pro-immigration demonstrators tried to reach the airport.
Supervisors in the train control center, operated by Metro, will continue to comply with police requests to interrupt service. But requests that are protest-related will be sent to the agency executives, who Rogoff said will seek “a meeting of the minds” with law enforcement, about whether real threats exist. Such rapid, high-level talks, in theory, may reduce the length of a disruption.
“In the event of protest activity, requests from law enforcement to suspend service will be honored, but will also be immediately elevated to (Metro Transit General Manager) Rob Gannon and myself to ensure that appropriate due diligence will be done to ascertain whether there is a meaningful safety and security threat.” — Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff
“We just want to make sure our transit services are not being used to suppress participation in a peaceful demonstration,” Rogoff said, emphasizing he does not accuse the Port of seeking to breach First Amendment rights.
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Routine police requests will continue to be handled at the control center in Sodo. That happened Monday morning, when a shooting investigation by Seattle police near Stadium Station briefly stopped train trips into the downtown transit tunnel.
On Saturday night, more than 1,000 pro-immigration demonstrators had already poured into the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport by 6 p.m., and hundreds were arriving on trains, said Wendy Reiter, the airport’s director of security and emergency preparedness. Participants wound up exceeding 3,000, she said.
Port police called the transit control center to request the airport station be skipped, while calling in additional officers from 10 other agencies.
Reiter wouldn’t rule out requests in the future to close the station, “one tool in our toolbox” in case of some emergency, not necessarily for crowd control.
Airport security staff are looking at other tools, such as herding demonstrators into a large hall where airline customers could detour around the protest, or in an extreme situation, even blocking entry beyond the station, which would effectively force an arriving crowd down to International Boulevard South.
Three northbound trains and three southbound trains skipped the airport station between 6:27 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday.
The half-hour was helpful, Reiter said, but airport staff agreed with reopening the station, and will review whether police could have handled the situation without a train disruption.
Arriving protesters were told to get off at the Tukwila International Boulevard Station and finish the last 1½ miles using the Rapid Ride A bus. Some walked to the airport rather than wait for a bus.
Rogoff was deluged with texts — from his staff as well from transit-board members Dave Upthegrove and Joe McDermott, who were in the protest — and reached out to Port of Seattle leaders.
A supervisor in the Link control center obeyed the police request but “pushed back” somewhat, and a quick look at transit cameras within the station showed a peaceful group posing no threat, according to Rogoff, who ordered trains to resume serving the airport station.
An hour later, King County Executive Dow Constantine, the most powerful member of the Sound Transit governing board, tweeted that a review of the protocol would take place Monday.
That elicited thanks, but also a reply that accused him of pandering, and that there should be a protocol for people who want to use the airport for flying, not politics.
Saturday’s protest followed an afternoon news conference by Washington state elected leaders in the airport. Citizens converged who oppose President Trump’s executive order forbidding non-U. S. citizens from seven majority Muslim countries from passing through airport customs into the United States. Gov. Jay Inslee said of Trump’s order, “It is a train wreck. It can’t stand. We’re drawing the line here at Sea-Tac.”
Port of Seattle commissioners said they were assisting the immigrants who were stopped, even helping them meet lawyers.
Six people arriving on flights with visas or “green cards” (permanent U.S. residency) were halted or turned back at Sea-Tac. Seattle was one of four cities where federal judges Saturday night issued emergency rulings against portions of Trump’s order.
One person from Sudan and one from Yemen were released to enter the U.S. The other four were sent back to their countries of origin.
The airport protest by a few thousand people was nonviolent, though some chanted “shut it down.” Demonstrators occupied lobbies and stairways, so airport customers found their way obstructed, and some were guided by police around the crowds.
As midnight approached, and some protesters refused to leave, about 30 people were arrested.
Police used pepper spray and plastic handcuffs and dispersed a group by pushing it out to the parking garage, according to pictures and descriptions by Seattle Times photographer Lindsey Wasson.
Rogoff said it’s not his role to pre-emptively hinder freedom of movement on transit based on whether a hazardous situation might unfold hours later.
“The issue is, what is their behavior at the time?” Rogoff said.
“There have been unfortunate episodes where protests that were peaceful … have gotten violent in the end. But that is no reason to keep people from participating in a peaceful demonstration,” he said.
Sound Transit’s own police, contracted through the King County sheriff, have momentarily blocked station gates a few times during political marches, but left other gates open.
This included the day of the presidential inauguration, Jan. 20. Transit officers parked vehicles inside the Capitol Hill Station, and Rogoff said they briefly lowered the steel mesh over a Broadway entrance during a street march. Skirmishes between police and demonstrators in black have happened there in the past.
Among other recent events, transit agencies added trains and buses to help move an estimated 100,000 to 120,000 people at the Jan. 21 Womxn’s March.
Thousands more rallied and marched through downtown Seattle on Sunday night against Trump’s new executive order. Metro warned customers of surface-street delays from more rallies Monday night. Rogoff said he bets more events are coming that will test the new protocol.