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Opinion: Police concerned about safety shouldn’t want federal agents in Seattle

Federal agents deployed in Portland. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Federal law enforcement agents and protesters have continued to clash nightly in Portland. In Seattle, we’re already seeing the beginning of a push from local law enforcement to bring that situation north.

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Under the pretense of protecting federal buildings, a smattering of camo-clad agents from Customs and Border Patrol and the U.S. Marshals have been in Portland for nearly a week now. We’ve heard numerous credible reports that those same agents have been snatching up protesters marching nowhere near federal property and throwing them into unmarked vehicles.

We’ve also seen other reports of agents brutalizing peaceful bystanders, breaking the hand of a Navy veteran doing little more than standing in front of them, punching a Seattle-based reporter for the New York Times in the head, and indiscriminately deploying tear gas and rubber bullets into large crowds.

“I’ve been documenting violent and militarized police responses to protests in Portland for more than four years, but nothing prepared me for the unrestrained brutality I’ve witnessed and experienced in recent days,” the ACLU’s Doug Brown said this week.

Now, at least one prominent leader in local law enforcement is calling for a similar federal occupation in Seattle.

“You saw the success federal officers had — perhaps this is the time now in Seattle when we might need some federal intervention here,” Seattle police union head Mike Solan said Monday.

Solan’s call not only represents a frightening endorsement of the violence we’ve seen federal agents engage in over the last week; it invites that same violence into Seattle. More importantly, it welcomes a situation where law enforcement at protests is even less accountable to the people it’s tasked with protecting and serving.

As SPD’s battle against a proposed 50% cut to its budget has ramped up, Chief Carmen Best has frequently touted the positive steps SPD has taken toward improved accountability and use of force policies since a 2012 federal consent decree was enacted. So, why would anyone associated with a department claiming it’s made progress on accountability and use of force welcome the aid of federal agents accountable to no one?

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We’ve already seen reports that federal agents in Portland never received proper training in riot control or mass demonstrations. What happens if one of those ill-trained agents sends a peaceful protester in Seattle to the hospital? However flawed the city’s system of accountability is right now, at the very least a system actually exists; there’s no such system in place that would hold any federal law enforcement accountable for their actions during protests.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen SPD argue that a 50% cut to its funding poses a direct threat to public safety. But if the police department is truly worried about public safety in the fight to retain the bulk of its funding, where is that same concern in the face of an unfettered federal occupation that has demonstrably led to less safety in Portland? Whether intentional or not, there’s a cognitive dissonance between the stated goal of keeping Seattle safe, and inviting a situation that would inevitably do the exact opposite of that.

Ultimately, bringing federal agents into Seattle wouldn’t keep anyone safe. Whatever the stated intent, in practice, it’s a backdoor to unraveling the Constitutional rights of protesters, and allows members of law enforcement to operate violently and without consequences. If that’s what the city’s own police force wants, then perhaps this whole debate was never about safety in the first place.

Questions, comments, or feedback? Follow Nick Bowman on Twitter at @NickNorthwest to weigh in, or reach him by email at [email protected]

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