Seattle police officers will stop using tear gas on protesters for at least the next 30 days amid ongoing demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd, and until watchdog groups and oversight officials can fully review and recommend changes to the police department’s crowd-management practices, the city’s police chief and mayor announced Friday.
Chief Carmen Best said the temporary ban only applies to tear gas — not flash-bang grenades, pepper spray and other crowd-control tools and tactics — but added: “everything will be reviewed.”
“It’s really important we’re looking at every aspect of force and how we’re utilizing it,” the chief said. “We’ll review everything we’re utilizing.”
The ban on tear gas came amid mounting community pressure, thousands of complaints about the department’s response to demonstrators and hours after three civilian watchdog groups recommended Friday that police officers discontinue using gas on protesters until a thorough review of crowd control could be undertaken. That review is to be conducted by the city’s civilian-led police accountability groups and federal oversight officials, along with input from public health officials and outside experts, Best and Mayor Jenny Durkan said.
“This review should better emphasize de-escalation tactics and incorporate recommendations from our accountability partners on the use of any crowd control techniques, including the use of tear gas and flash-bangs,” Durkan said.
The tear gas ban is the latest action prompted by ongoing demonstrations in Seattle and across the nation sparked by the killing of George Floyd on May 25 by Minneapolis police. Criticism about Seattle police response — including officers wearing mourning bands over their badge numbers, as well as their use of flash-bang grenades, pepper spray and tear gas on demonstrators — has intensified this week, even in real time as the protests have unfolded.
Earlier this week, Best ordered the officers to make their badge numbers clearly visible, and City Attorney Pete Holmes — citing “unprecedented levels of protest” in recent days — formally withdrew a city request to a federal court that could have cleared the way to lift eight years of federal oversight from the police department.
Durkan’s own handpicked civil rights director sent an email to her staff Friday criticizing the police’s response while calling on City Hall to reallocate money from law enforcement to other community needs.
In the email, Mariko Lockhart, Durkan’s director of the Office of Civil Rights, described the fear of police she experienced firsthand while marching “in protest to grieve and be in the community with others,” and urged the city to “immediately halt” using tear gas, flash-bang devices and rubber bullets during demonstrations.
“I, along with other demonstrators, were met with tear gas and flash grenades thrown into the crowd by our City colleagues at SPD,” Lockhart wrote, in what she desribed as “an open letter” first reported by independent journalist Erica C. Barnett. “What I experienced in person and have seen in video footage has been terrifying. I have heard from other city leadership and employees that they fear for their personal safety, not because of other protesters but because of the police.”
Before the mayor and chief announced the tear gas ban Friday, a joint recommendation issued by the city’s Community Police Commission (CPC), the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the Office of Inspector General for Public Safety (OIG), had asked “the Seattle Police Department to cease the use of CS gas in response to First Amendment activity, until such time as any appropriate use can be vetted by oversight entities and incorporated into a written SPD policy.”
“That policy should include sufficient safeguards so that CS gas is only used, if at all, in a manner that keeps faith with the public trust,” according to a memorandum sent to Durkan, Best, Holmes and the City Council.
Best said Friday that her department’s use of tear gas during the latest demonstrations, which began May 30, was the first time Seattle police had used the chemical agent for crowd management since the WTO riots in 1999.
“Other options on that day for crowd control, such as blast balls and OC spray, simply were not proving effective at that time,” she said. “And because of the magnitude of the event, we experienced a near depletion of the supply of those tools. Accordingly, SPD temporarily authorized the use of CS in order to prevent further destruction.”
Last Saturday’s demonstration was by far the biggest and most violent, with several police vehicles set on fire, two AR-15 police rifles temporarily stolen and widespread looting of downtown businesses into the night. Since then, demonstrations have grown more peaceful, particularly during Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Durkan credited Best and her department with making adjustments as the protests have worn on, including by engaging in ongoing discussions with community activists, moving police lines farther back and away from demonstrators, and improving communications with the crowds through the use of loudspeakers and open dialogues. Still, a few isolated incidents have continued, including some objects thrown at police, with two injured Thursday night, Best said.
“We have to meet peace with peace, and last night, in the face of the rocks, bottles, and projectiles your police officers demonstrated restraint and they didn’t use any force,” the chief said.
Earlier this week, Andrew Myerberg, director of the civilian-led OPA that investigates police misconduct complaints, said his office had received more than 12,000 complaints about the police department’s response to the initial demonstrations and had opened more than a dozen formal investigations. Several City Council members also voiced concerns during hearings this week and called upon the city’s three police watchdog groups to ask for recommendations on police tactics amid the protests.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold, chair of the council’s public safety committee, said in a statement Friday she supports the tear gas ban and review.
“My Council colleagues and I were alarmed to hear story after story of protesters, bystanders and residents affected by the police department’s use of tear gas during Wednesday’s public safety committee meeting,” Herbold’s statement said. “We heard from constituents who had tear gas projectiles thrown directly at them, and others who were not in the protests, but because they live Downtown or in Capitol Hill, had tear gas seep into their homes.”
Durkan said Friday she also sought recommendations early Tuesday from the police oversight groups, after viewing a video from Monday’s demonstration that appeared to show a police officer grabbing a protester’s umbrella and sparking police’s widespread use of flash-bang grenades and gassing that night. The mayor added Friday that the department’s current policies for managing demonstrations had been reviewed and approved in 2017, before she was mayor.
Even before these current protests, there had been formal calls for Seattle police to suspend or re-evaluate its use of crowd-control tools and tactics that appeared to go unheeded. The CPC and OPA each had raised concerns to city and police officials about the use of blast-ball grenades in 2015 and 2016, but Seattle police continued to use them.
The watchdog groups’ two-page memo issued Friday noted that tear gas “is not mentioned in the SPD manual,” nor was it approved by the federal court overseeing the city’s ongoing Consent Decree with the U.S. Department of Justice that requires oversight of the police department’s use of force policies and practices.
Several local and national public health officials, including Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, also recently have publicly opposed the use of tear gas and other respiratory irritants due to the potential to increase the spread of COVID-19.
In a news release Friday, CPC co-chairs the Rev. Harriett Walden, the Rev. Aaron Williams and Prachi Dave said their recommendation to cease the use of tear gas came “in addition to” the previous recommendations about demonstration concerns and blast balls that were never fully addressed. The joint request states that it “was made in response to a wave of community concern about an overly militaristic approach to regulating demonstrations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.”
“While a number of other concerns have been identified by community, the use of CS gas on largely peaceful demonstrators demands immediate attention,” it said.
The department’s temporary ban on tear gas only applies to general crowd control policing, not to the department’s SWAT team for approved uses during life-saving circumstances during demonstrations and stand-off and hostage situations, Best said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Heidi Groover contributed to this report.