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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rules of engagement: Spokane leader wants clear guidelines for protests

Riot police advance on protesters on May 31, firing less-lethal  (Colin Mulvany)

A broken window. An airborne rock. A store looted.

Whichever line officers draw to justify the use rubber bullets and tear gas, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs wants the city’s police to publish rules of engagement long before protesters march through city streets.

That proposal is one of the items included in a lengthy slate of proposed reforms to policing Beggs posted to his Facebook page on Monday night, in response to the violent unrest that followed an otherwise peaceful protest against police brutality in Spokane on May 31.

The broad, 17-point proposal, which is a starting point for a list of reforms Beggs plans to bring to City Council, covered everything from independent police oversight to the use of police dogs to bite a suspect. It includes several components Beggs has long advocated for or considered.

But Beggs is also seeking multiple changes to policies that would impact how officers engage with protesters who, at the moment, are coming face-to-face with the very police departments they’re seeking to reform or dismantle.

Beggs’ plans call for police to publish rules of engagement before a protest, use rubber bullets only in defensive action an d use an armored vehicle only when the risk of gunfire is imminent.

This Sunday, peaceful protesters gathered at Riverfront Park and marched across the Monroe Street Bridge, meandered through streets north of the Spokane River and circled back to the park before disbanding at about 5 p.m. A smaller group of protesters continued to march through downtown streets until close to 10 p.m.

Despite rumors of potential clashes and armed militia members lining parts of city streets, the event remained peaceful and the Spokane Police Department remained largely unsee n, despite a robust and r eady presence nearby.

That was in stark contrast to just a week prior, when officers donned riot gear early in the protests, and the looting of a Nike store on Main Avenue catapulted what had been a peaceful protest into a night of chaos and violence between police and protesters, although no critical injuries or deaths were reported.

Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds downtown and in Riverfront Park, and Mayor Nadine Woodward ultimately ordered a curfew.

Many protesters and observers questioned the show of force. Andrea “Drea” Rose Gallardo told The Spokesman-Review that she was essentially boxed in by clouds of tear gas when police tackled her to the ground and restrained her with a knee to her neck in an incident captured on video.

The police response also drew questions from members of the City Council, including Beggs. Now, the council could take action in an effort to avoid a repeat of those events.

Beggs said he believes rules of engagement, making clear what actions will and will not prompt officers to disperse a crowd regardless of who was actually involved in the violation, will protect the public and the police.

Based on the limited window he’s had into the actions that unfolded on May 31, Beggs said it appears many protesters didn’t hear the order to disperse before officers unloaded “less lethal” rounds into the crowd, whose members believed they had the right to be there.

The intention of the proposal is not to force police to disclose intricate details of their protest plans, Beggs said.

“More disclosure is better, generally. These aren’t military people, these are our public safety force,” Beggs said. “People have a right to know that. There are maybe some things that can’t be disclosed, but it should err on the side of disclosure, and I’m talking on a high level, not down to the micro.”

Publishing rules of engagement would prove challenging because every situation is different, according to Sgt. Terry Preuninger, a police department spokesman.

The initial crowd of thousands of people on Sunday, for example, would not have been dispersed by police had one or two people smashed a window. Instead, they would have been isolated and pulled out.

“I’m not going to tell 3,000 people this kid, this guy over here broke a window – you have to go home,” Preuninger said.

But the smaller group of a few hundred marchers that marched through downtown streets well into the evening would have been dispersed for the same action.

“Had that group broken a window, they’re done,” Preuninger said.

Beggs acknowledges that unexpected events unfold during a demonstration, but suggested police already have planning meetings in which they draw a line – for example, if an object is thrown at police, they will take action. Whatever the line is, it should be disclosed ahead of time, Beggs argued.

Among the improvements Sunday were that people had a better sense of “what the rules were potentially, and also the police adjusted ,” Beggs said.

Police did attempt to improve communication and educate the public ahead of Sunday’s protests, according to Preuninger, even if they stopped short of publishing a set of rules.

“What we want people to know is this is what the law says, here’s what we can stop it for,” Preuninger said.

Prearranged meetings between police and protest leadership to outline plans like march routes are vitally important, according to Dr. Stephen James, an assistant research professor at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane.

As a former officer in the British military, James has witnessed civil unrest in Northern Ireland firsthand.

Ultimately, the rules of engagement is the law, James said. The issue with laying out specific consequences – like a tossed rock will be met with a pepper ball – is that the protesters causing unrest aren’t going to be the ones sitting in meetings with police, reading rules of engagement.

“I don’t know what it would serve other than giving those intent on turning peaceful protest into something else more information than they need,” James said.

James said he understood the impetus and feeling behind Beggs’ proposal, and certainly endorses open lines of communication between protesters and police to set expectations.

“The problem with drawing lines in the sand is they can become ultimatums or challenges to a crowd,” James said.

Police did not issue a dispersal order Sunday, but Preuninger said the department had adapted after the previous week and had plans to more broadly communicate through social media and other platforms prior to releasing tear gas or rubber bullets.

“That’s the place where we could do way better to help people out,” Preuninger said.

Beggs also wants to rein in use of an armored vehicle, which was present at the May 31 protest, to situations only in which there is imminent risk of gunfire.

Preuninger explained that guns have been present at both Sunday rallies in Spokane. In addition to well-armed militia members who have lined up outside city businesses, Preuninger said there was an older man with a firearm near the Nike looting on May 31 and a man with an assault rifle marching with protesters Sunday.

“There’s a lot of firearms, so we were obligated to have the armor,” Preuninger said.

In the event of gunfire, Preuninger said police would use it as a bulletproof barricade to shield off victims in need of treatment from first responders.

Beggs also wants police to use less-lethal rounds only in “defensive action.”

But that’s difficult to define, Preuninger said.

The department uses three types of foam rounds. One is less accurate and shot on the ground in front of people to encourage them to disperse, while the other two types of bullets are more precise and can hit a target from 25 to 30 yards away. They are treated as a use of force on the same level as a baton strike.

The department views a protester throwing a rock or brick at its officers as deadly force, and the same with a Molotov cocktail.

In that case, the use of foam bullets is defensive action, Preuninger argued.

“If people are leaving, we’re not going to keep hitting them with those foam bullets,” he said.

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