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Seattle police response to protests last summer made things worse, report says

UPDATED: Fri., July 23, 2021

FILE - In this July 25, 2020, file photo, police pepper spray Black Lives Matter protesters near Seattle Central Community College in Seattle. Following the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 26, 2020, protests in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality and racial injustice were held frequently in Seattle and other cities. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)  (Ted S. Warren)
FILE - In this July 25, 2020, file photo, police pepper spray Black Lives Matter protesters near Seattle Central Community College in Seattle. Following the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 26, 2020, protests in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality and racial injustice were held frequently in Seattle and other cities. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File) (Ted S. Warren)
By Mike Carter Seattle Times

The Seattle Police Department needs to find a better way to interact with anti-police demonstrators, including allowing officers to express solidarity with protesters marching against police brutality and racism, according to the first in a series of detailed critiques of the department’s response to racial justice protests in downtown Seattle.

At the same time, the city’s Office of Inspector General for Public Safety, in the first of its “Sentinel Event Review” reports on local demonstrations that arose after the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, said the department needs to do more to ensure officers at protests don’t show contempt for the people whose rights they’re supposed to be protecting, regardless of fatigue and stress.

The review committee, made up of SPD representatives and community members, found that officers who were sympathetic to the protesters and condemned Floyd’s death felt constrained from saying anything by the department’s code of conduct that requires political neutrality on duty. That silence was interpreted by the crowd “as an alignment with, or at least a refusal to refute, the police brutality that was the source of the protests.”

Meanwhile, Carmen Best, former SPD chief, and Mayor Jenny Durkan decried Floyd’s death. Had officers felt they could have done so, tensions could have been eased, the OIG said.

“The Panel felt that ‘taking a knee’ or standing publicly against police brutality … was a show of support for fair and just policing, and something SPD officers should do without reservation,” the OIG found.

In all, the OIG panel offered 54 recommendations in a granular, 122-page critique of the department’s response to the first of what the panel identified as five distinct waves of heightened violence during protests that rocked Seattle during the summer and fall of 2020. This first report focuses on the response to the first three days of demonstrations downtown, May 29-June 1, when officers used pepper-spray, tear gas, batons and other weapons against thousands of mostly peaceful protesters after vandals in the crowd broke windows, looted and stole guns from burning police cars.

Seattle police did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report Thursday evening.

The OIG specifically stated the department should move away from the concepts of “crowd control” and “crowd management” to one of “crowd facilitation and crowd safety.”

During those three days, the OIG identified a series of overarching contributing factors that fueled the protests in the wake of Floyd’s death, the primary one being decades of unanswered police violence in communities of color. Discussions of institutional racism and community grievances were a fraught and difficult topic for panel members, according to the report, and proved a “substantial hurdle” to consensus, the report said.

Other factors that contributed to the chaotic clashes between protesters and police included the unexpected size and spontaneity of the protests, leading to an overwhelmed department, stressed officers and failed communication.

“The damage that has been done – the damage that caused these protests in the first place, and the overall inability of SPD as a department and the City of Seattle to immediately craft particularized responses to the needs of peaceful protesters while addressing threats to public order and safety – is deep and lasting,” the OIG report concluded. “However, acknowledging the underlying contributing factor of institutional and systemic racism was critical to being able to move forward as a group.”

Within the three initial days of protests, which the OIG review refers to as “Wave 1,” the panelists identified five “pivotal moments” – all amplified by social media – that directly led to escalated violence, conflicts and arrest, as well as public outcry.

They included incidents on May 30, when police pepper-sprayed a 7-year-old boy in the crowd; when vandals set fire to police cars, leading to the theft of several patrol rifles and a significant public safety threat; and an incident in which an officer placed his knee on a suspect’s neck during an arrest. The panel also reviewed the violent arrest of a pedestrian by a bike officer on May 31 and the high-profile incident in which an officer struggled with a protester over a pink umbrella.

The incident involving the bike officer exemplified the divide between SPD and the communities it serves more than any other, the OIG concluded.

“Some Panelists reflexively sided with the SPD officers and felt strongly that an individual had assaulted an officer” after the officer and pedestrian became entangled and fell to the sidewalk, the report said. The officer claimed the man punched him, although video of the incident does not clearly show what happened.

Others on the panel “saw this event as the most salient example of a regular practice of SPD officers misusing force, abusing their power and defending it through a transparently false post-hoc rationale,” the report said. “For them, it underscored the reasons the protests were necessary and further eroded SPD legitimacy.”

Everyone on the panel agreed, however, that a single officer’s “snap decision” transformed a peaceful march into an angry clash that could have been easily avoided.

Inspector General Lisa Judge also called the department out for its officers’ disdain for the protesters, which did nothing to soothe tension. She noted that SPD policy prohibits “profanity directed as an insult or any language that is derogatory, contemptuous, or disrespectful toward any person,” regardless of their behavior.

“Despite this, panelists witnessed numerous instances in which this policy was not followed,” she wrote. “Instances in which officers exhibit disrespect, frustration, or anger to members of our community – even after repeated extra-long and extra-stressful shifts in which they have been subjected to lengthy and repeated verbal assaults – simply cannot be tolerated, as they further undermine trust and underscore the divide between the community and the police that it is essential for the community to heal.”

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