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Law enforcement unions push Washington ballot initiative to regulate protests, protect police jobs

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 27, 2020

By Lewis Kamb Seattle Times

Contending public officials in Seattle and elsewhere have failed to keep all citizens safe during ongoing racial injustice protests, a group of law enforcement unions announced Monday they’re pushing a statewide ballot initiative that would require Washington cities and counties to create and enforce detailed plans for regulating free-speech demonstrations.

Calling themselves Team Blue – Washington, the group – made up of executives from the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), the King County Corrections Guild and the Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs (WACOPS) – said the proposed measure also permits citizens harmed by demonstrations to quickly seek damages from local governments that fail to enforce those plans.

“This will work to restore order to our communities and allow people to have a robust say as to how their communities function,” Ryan Lufkin, a former deputy district attorney in Multnomah County in Oregon and the group’s chair, said during a virtual news conference announcing the campaign on Monday.

SPOG President Mike Solan, one of the campaign’s vice chairs, added that because the initiative offers what he views as a “sensical approach” toward public safety, it also follows that its approval by voters would help indirectly to protect police jobs amid calls to defund the police.

“Clearly, police officers protect the public and this effort protects the public,” Solan said. “When you look at politicians trying to defund the police, where you remove officers from communities – particularly in Seattle, at a time when 911 response times are through the roof – having less officers on the street will cause only more problems.”

Response times, particularly at the East Precinct, rose during the height of the protests, but have since come back down, according to recent SPD data. The SPD’s target response time for the highest-priority calls is 7 minutes, and three of the five precincts meet that goal. Median response times for the two other precincts range between 7 and 9 minutes.

Representatives of Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now – two local advocacy groups supporting police defunding efforts – did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday, nor did a spokeswoman for the Seattle City Council.

In a statement late Monday, the ACLU of Washington said: “This unnecessary initiative duplicates existing permitting processes, exposes cities to lawsuits, and distracts the government and its agents from their number one priority, which should be protecting people’s constitutional rights – including the freedoms of speech and assembly.”

The campaign group has drafted what it calls the “Protect Free Speech and Safe Streets Act,” and the act is posted at teamblue-wa.com. It contends that the proposed measure protects First Amendment rights and peaceful protests, but will require each community to create a comprehensive plan that clearly lays out how demonstrations will be regulated.

Under the act, each jurisdiction would be free to adopt its own rules but must have a list of minimum standards. They include banning loud demonstrations after 10 p.m. in residential neighborhoods, or between midnight and 7 a.m. in any neighborhood; prohibiting possession of “riot agents,” such as fireworks, flammable explosives and laser pointers at gatherings that have been deemed unlawful; and outlawing street blockades, property destruction and the setting of fires.

Each community’s plan also must require officers to wear observable identification, describe what types of force and crowd-control devices they could use and provide details for when police could declare that an event was a riot or unlawful.

Already, Seattle and other communities have rules and laws that address most of the issues, Lufkin said. “The problem is, they haven’t been enforced in any meaningful way and certainly not consistently,” he said.

If a community fails to enforce its plan, the measure would allow a streamlined process for citizens or businesses that are harmed by a demonstration to sue for actual damages or a minimum of $1,000.

Beginning in late May, large-scale demonstrations against racial injustice and other causes erupted in cities nationwide in the wake of the death of George Floyd and other Black men and women.

Protests in Seattle have drawn national attention and become a political football reflecting the nation’s deep ideological chasm. Some demonstrations here have been marred by episodic vandalism, looting and property destruction, as well as heavy-handed police responses that have spurred multiple misconduct complaints, legal claims and lawsuits.

Seattle police largely abandoned the East Precinct on Capitol Hill in June while protesters occupied and declared a six-block autonomous zone. At least four shootings occurred before police reoccupied the precinct and the city disbanded the zone. Amid the protests, the City Council also adopted budget cuts to the police department and Chief Carmen Best suddenly retired.

Team Blue – Washington recently filed paperwork as an initiative campaign committee with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, records show.

Joining the cause with Solan and Lufkin, whose Portland law firm, the Public Safety Labor Group, specializes in representing law enforcement labor unions, are WACOPS President Chris Tracy and King County Corrections Guild President Dennis Folk. Both are vice chairs of the group.

As of Oct. 19, the committee had reported contributions totaling $100, records show.

Lufkin said the group plans to collect and submit to the state the more than 250,000 signatures required by July to put the measure on the general election ballot next year. The group believes that task is attainable, he said, noting unions backing the effort collectively have more than 6,000 members. He also cited results from two recent polls suggesting public support for the cause.

A poll taken Sept. 8-14 by Seattle-based political consultants Strategies 360 found 50% of respondents view the recent demonstrations in downtown Seattle as “more violent than peaceful,” with 39% seeing them as more peaceful. A Crosscut-Elway poll taken Sept. 26-Oct. 1 also found that 87% of respondents who lived in Seattle or King County wanted at least the same amount, or more, of police presence in their neighborhoods.

Despite such viewpoints, a recent study by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project found that nationwide, more than 93% of all demonstrations connected to the Black Lives Matter movement have been peaceful. In many urban areas with sustained unrest, such as Seattle and Portland, violent or destructive demonstrations largely have been confined to specific blocks rather than dispersed throughout cities, the study also found.

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