The president of the Seattle City Council and police watchdogs expressed concern Saturday that a judge’s decision to block a new ban on tear gas, blast balls and other crowd-control weapons could escalate tensions or chill free speech amid protests this weekend.
Seattle police Chief Carmen Best, meanwhile, said Saturday the department “promised” it wouldn’t use tear gas.
A federal judge Friday night temporarily blocked a new city law that would have banned tear gas, blast balls and some uses of pepper spray. A separate order limiting how those weapons can be used remains in effect.
After the U.S. Department of Justice sought to stop the new law, U.S. District Judge James Robart ruled the ordinance needed more discussion and review under Seattle’s consent decree, which was put in place after a federal review found Seattle police used excessive force and showed evidence of biased policing.
Robart said the federal government successfully showed the ban could “create a risk that SPD officers will resort to excessive force,” potentially violating the terms of the consent decree. Robart’s order will last 14 days.
The ruling came as protests in Seattle that had been drawing fewer people than earlier this summer appeared to ramp back up Saturday after the Trump administration deployed federal agents to the Seattle area.
Seattle City Council President M. Lorena González said Robart appeared focused on maintaining the “integrity of the city’s commitment to the consent decree,” not on the legality of the weapons ban itself. Yet the decision risked escalating tensions during the weekend’s protests, she said.
“I am nervous that allowing the Police Department to use this tool effectively guarantees that they will use it,” González said. “And that is going to be in combination with the federal agents who are in town.”
Best said in a statement that police officers would carry pepper spray and blast balls during protests planned for Saturday. “SPD promises the community that we will not deploy CS [tear] gas,” Best said.
Best had repeatedly voiced strong opposition to the ban, saying it would endanger officers and leave them with only “riot shields and riot batons.”
Tear gas and pepper spray are different substances but can have similar effects, like pain in the eyes, nose and throat. During protests in June, Best and Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that Seattle police officers would stop using tear gas for 30 days, but several days later police used tear gas.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said Saturday the council bill “could conflict with the requirements under the consent decree” and Robart’s ruling will allow for more review by police oversight bodies.
The Justice Department’s interest in stopping the Seattle law could have a chilling effect on protest, said Molly Tack-Hooper, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
“The federal government feels it has an interest in ensuring protesters can be gassed going forward,” she said.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said the decision “adds to the hurt that calls people to the streets around the country” and called for “de-escalation strategies that don’t involve bodily harm or irritants.”
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who sponsored the ban, called the ruling “shameful.”
“While Donald Trump’s Department of Justice and Jenny Durkan’s Seattle Police Department are superficially the two sides of this court case, they are in total agreement on repression of protests,” Sawant said in a statement.
Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, said, “The mayor believes changes do need to be made to SPD’s crowd management practices, policies and training.”
During arguments in court Friday night, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christina Fogg argued that without crowd-control weapons like pepper spray and blast balls, police would have only guns, tasers and batons.
“We are setting up a situation where there is a very increased likelihood of excessive force being used,” Fogg said.
David Perez, an attorney for Seattle’s Community Police Commission who defended the law in court Friday, said the Justice Department is “weaponizing the Consent Decree.”
The Justice Department “ignored the Consent Decree and stood idly by” while Seattle police “indiscriminately” used tear gas and pepper-sprayed a young child in June, Perez said in an email.
“The CPC stands ready to work with the City and DOJ to ensure that the right policies are in place to prevent what happened last month from ever happening again,” Perez said.
Seattle police remain under an order from another judge in a separate case brought by attorneys for the ACLU of Washington on behalf of Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County and several individuals.
That order does not completely ban pepper spray, tear gas and blast balls, but bars their use against people “peacefully engaging in protests or demonstrations.” It allows officers to use the weapons in “necessary, reasonable, proportional and targeted action to protect against a specific imminent threat.”
Tear gas can be used if pepper spray and other efforts have been “exhausted and ineffective.”
Staff reporters David Gutman and Christine Clarridge contributed to this story.