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‘Enormous’ issues at stake in case over SPD use of force against protesters, judge says; hearing set

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 1, 2020

Police take down a protester near Seattle Central Community College in Seattle on July 25. A large group of protesters  (Ted S. Warren)
Police take down a protester near Seattle Central Community College in Seattle on July 25. A large group of protesters (Ted S. Warren)
By Mike Carter Seattle Times

A federal judge has set five days aside beginning Aug. 26 for a hearing to determine whether Seattle police are in contempt of an injunction barring the use of force on peaceful protesters, saying “enormous issues” are at stake.

“The nature of the proceedings in this court have citywide impact,” U.S. District Judge Richard Jones told attorneys for the city and Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County (BLM), which sued the city over the Police Department’s violent response to mass protests over racism and police brutality that have erupted nationally over the death of George Floyd.

Jones flatly rejected a request to delay the hearing for 60 days by Bob Christie, whose firm has been hired to represent the Police Department. BLM is represented by attorneys from the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie.

Christie said the department wanted a chance to go through nearly 1,400 police officer body camera videos created on July 25 – the day BLM alleges the city violated Jones’s injunction – some as long as 90 minutes. He said they hoped to match the video with incidents described in each of the two dozen sworn declarations submitted by BLM from protesters who claimed they were indiscriminately pepper sprayed, struck with batons or blast balls, or shot with bruising “blue-nose” foam projectiles.

David Perez, a Perkins Coie trial attorney representing BLM, told Jones he thought a two-month delay “impractical” considering the ongoing nature of the protests and the opportunities they present for additional clashes between police, protesters and a relatively small group of individuals within the protests bent on property destruction and confronting police.

“The court believes there is urgency,” Jones said, in setting a date just under four weeks out. “The court is concerned about the issues raised.”

The parties agreed that the hearing will combine sworn affidavits – eliminating the need for some witnesses – and a combination of “live” witness testimony and video presentations, all conducted via video-conferencing tool Zoom.

Jones declined a request by Perez and BLM that the department turn over all 1,400 body camera videos for their review, suggesting that the Police Department might not be willing to give them video that support their allegations. Christie took umbrage at the imputation.

“We would never do that,” he said. “It is what it is.”

Jones issued the injunction after finding police had violated the First Amendment rights of thousands of peaceful protesters.

The judge cited the indiscriminate use of tear gas, pepper spray, foam-tipped projectiles and other less-than-lethal force against crowds during mass protests in late May and June downtown and on Capitol Hill, where SPD abandoned its East Precinct for a time.

Earlier this week, BLM Seattle-King County, with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a motion accusing police of violating that injunction. They asked the court to hold the department in contempt and require sanctions and additional safeguards against abuses.

Police have said they were responding to violence and property damage, including arson and threats to officers. Police commanders declared a riot last weekend after vandals in the crowd set fire to buildings and equipment at the construction site for the youth jail.

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