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Reports paint picture of disorganized, overworked, overwhelmed SPD in protests

Demonstrators hold a rally and teach-in outside of the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct, which had been boarded up and protected by fencing, on June 8, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Poor planning, lack of equipment and staff, insufficient training, low supplies of pepper spray and blast balls, and shifting rules of engagement. Those are just some of the problems highlighted in reports from the trio of Seattle Police oversight arms on Seattle Police Department’s recent use of crowd control weapons in protests.

Judge expands restrictions on SPD’s use of crowd control weapons during protests

The reports from the Office of Inspector General, Office of Police Accountability, and Community Police Commission were requested as part of the city’s new ban on crowd control weapons, currently on hold due to a temporary restraining order issued by the federal judge overseeing the consent decree in response to a Justice Department motion.

The three reports differ in tone, with the Community Police Commission painting the SPD response to protests as part of an ongoing systemic problem they’ve warned city officials about for years, and calling for a “community centered review” of SPD’s entire use of force policy.

The Office of Police Accountability report points to a series of supervisory shortcomings.

“At times, it appeared to OPA that officers were sent to confront crowds with no clear strategy or plan behind the deployment,” the OPA report reads.

“This led to a frequent pattern: officers would be assigned to hold a line in a certain area; demonstrators would confront the officers; individuals within the crowd would throw bottles or rocks; SPD officers would respond with force; the crowd would temporarily leave. However, officers would continue to hold the same line, demonstrators would return, and the pattern would begin again. Front-line officers and supervisors sometimes appeared to be improvising their responses to the crowd in the apparent absence of clear directions from an incident commander,” the report continues.

The Office of Inspector General report – the most comprehensive of the three – echoed the OPA’s report, also pointing to the need to “closely review how and whether senior level command is held accountable for their decision-making in authorizing force and determining overall tactics.”

Both point to the lack of available detailed reports on the strategic plans given to officers at roll calls before an event, which they say SPD said was due to concerns about potential leaks and public records requests, but both noted the importance of knowing what officers were directed to do to ensure accountability at higher levels.

Other issues included not having a good public address system to ensure the crowd could hear dispersal orders; difficulty officers had hearing incident commanders; running low on less lethal weapons, which the OIG says led to Chief Best authorizing the use of tear gas; and not having enough officers to properly staff demonstrations leading to lengthy, ill-advised shifts for officers in an already volatile environment.

In some cases, the OIG noted, surrounding agencies were unwilling to assist the SPD in demonstrations, not wanting to be drawn into the targeted protests against the department. But some also told OIG that it was continuous shifts in the rules of engagement that kept outside agencies away for fear of putting their own officers at risk.

While the CPC called on the council to keep its ban on crowd control weapons in place, the OPA and the OIG both called for re-authorization of the use of all crowd control weapons such as pepper spray, flash bangs, and non-lethal foam projectiles by SPD during protests, but with restrictions and very clear policy and training on when and how they’re to be used to avoid indiscriminate use on those exercising their rights to peacefully protest. Not allowing their use, the groups say, leaves officers with no choice but to use batons if force is needed, a strategy that could lead to more significant injury on both sides.

However, the OPA also called for a change to current policy, removing the authority for individual officers to use crowd control weapons only in defense of property, noting: “This policy stands in contrast to the International Association of Chiefs of Police Model Policy on Crowd Management, which recommends that officers should not be permitted to make arrests or use force without command authorization unless there are exigent circumstances that pose a risk of imminent injury.”

All three reports recommended a ban on CS – or tear gas — during demonstrations.

All reports also recommended the city council change the ordinance to allow the use of CCWs for SWAT and in non-crowd control calls, such as hostage negotiating and other situations involving individuals as opposed to large crowds, noting the current all-out ban would leave the SPD with limited options in high stakes situations that could lead to the need for deadly use of force.

The CPC, OPA, and OIG all rejected the idea of requiring the mayor’s office to approve dispersal orders.

Find the full list of recommendations and reports on SPD’s protests response here: Community Police Commission; Office of Police Accountability; Office of Inspector General.

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