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East Precinct commander: ‘I’m not going to allow this precinct to be taken over’

Barriers and tents are seen outside of the Seattle Police Department's vacated East Precinct in the area known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) on June 28, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

A man from Alaska is now facing a federal arson charge for allegedly trying to burn down the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct on Monday while officers were inside. Video shows a crowd outside the building using quick drying cement to seal a door shut before others started a fire.

Captain Eric Sano, commander of the East Precinct, told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show he was at home Monday night, but got a call around midnight and immediately left for the precinct.

“They told me that somebody had just tried to light the precinct on fire, that they had tried to seal our officers in, that our officers had to breach the door to get out, to be able to put the fire out,” he said. “When they ran outside, they were met by a large contingent of demonstrators who tried to prevent officers [from] extinguishing the fire by throwing objects at them. And one officer did sustain some minor injuries.”

By the time Sano arrived, most of the demonstrators had dispersed.

“I looked at the damage to the precinct and it was unbelievable,” he said.

“One of the things we try to do is get that cleaned up as quickly as possible to make it look as normal as possible, primarily for officers, but also for the neighborhood to show them that we’re going back to business as usual here and serving our constituents, the people and businesses that are up here in the East Precinct, and that’s what we did,” he added.

From there, Sano says, he was glad to see nobody was seriously hurt or caught in the fire. Then, they move on to figure out how to better protect the precinct and the officers.

While there are cameras on the outside of the precinct, Sano said it was an unusual night at the East Precinct in terms of staffing.

“There were some people inside that we’re working on things,” he said. “We had somebody watching a camera. Unfortunately, at that precise moment, we had a number of officers that were down dealing with issues at the West Precinct, … there was a simultaneous issue that was occurring down at the Seattle Police Officers Guild offices down farther south in the SoDo area, so we were spread pretty thin.”

“We did not have sufficient staffing to go into the crowd to be able to address the issue,” Sano added. “We had to get the officers from the inside to come out, and when they came out they were, of course, met with some confrontational people. Our officers had regular fire extinguishers, household grade fire extinguishers that they were using to put the fire out while the rest of the officers were trying to prevent that officer from being assaulted by bottles, rocks, explosive devices.”

There have been protests in Seattle in the days and weeks prior to this, but Sano says this was different.

“For the week prior to this, we had just our normal protesters and, look, we, the Seattle Police Department, have always supported people’s rights to get out there and express their First Amendment rights,” Sano said. “Where we take issue … is when we have people that are committing acts of violence and crimes either against persons or property.”

The violence at the precinct Monday came just hours after police shot Jacob Blake seven times in Wisconsin, so Sano thinks emotions were running high.

The city and SPD response

When asked how the city should respond to what happened at the precinct, Sano echoed what others have said, including Mike Solan of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, that city leaders need to condemn this behavior.

“We need our city leaders to actually condemn this kind of behavior, to come out and publicly condemn acts of violence, acts of extreme property destruction and those types of arsons that are likely to cause injury or death,” Sano said. “We need our city leaders to step up, all of them, all the city council, our mayor, everyone, our chief of police included, the fire department chief, to say we do not condone this kind of behavior.”

“While we support your right to protest, we are condemning the actions of people who are going out there and committing crimes and creating such property destruction and potential life safety issues,” he added.

In his opinion, Sano continued, the message is lost when violence and property destruction starts.

“What the police department can do is we can continue to monitor these of these events to ensure that the people that have a lawful right to protest and want to protest peacefully have that ability to do so,” he said. “But also we have to ensure that acts of violence, … crimes will not be tolerated against primarily persons but also property in the city of Seattle.”

The police department, Sano says, has a duty and obligation to protect and serve the public, which includes both property and people.

“But we have to be very judicious, and we do have to be careful how we do this too for our officer safety reasons,” he said. “We don’t want to go after graffiti people when, OK, graffiti can be removed. But I’m talking about the people that are throwing Molotov cocktails into businesses, breaking large windows.”

Additionally, when Molotov cocktails are thrown into businesses that are below apartments where people live, it moves from being property destruction to being a life safety issue, Sano said.

While he has not heard from the mayor or council, he says that doesn’t mean the conversations aren’t happening.

“I know there are discussions at that level,” he said. “… My main thing right now is to come in here and to give these officers just support. … I’m a very positive person. I want to come back in here and kind of restore some of the morale.”

There’s a lot of uncertainty for SPD officers between COVID, potential budget cuts, and defunding, he said.

“Our officers are kind of working in this weird area where they’re not sure, ‘well, will I have a job next month or next year?,’ ‘What is policing gonna look like?,'” he posited. “I mean, we all know that policing needs to have reform, but we have been under a settlement agreement for the last 10 years and, quite frankly, we’ve been seen across the nation as the platinum standard.”

The layers of accountability are going to continue, Sano promised.

“We’re going to continue with those reforms that were put in place by the settlement agreement, and we’re going to continue to improve upon those reforms,” he added.

The SPD has a duty to the settlement agreement or consent decree and to the citizens of Seattle to be open, transparent, and accountable to the citizens, Sano said.

Protecting the East Precinct

Captain Sano was not commander of the East Precinct when the officers left and CHOP formed, but he made it clear that the building will not be abandoned under his command.

“I’m pretty outspoken, and I have told [the officers] that we will not abandon this building,” he said. “We have a duty to stay in this neighborhood. We have a duty to serve the people in the East Precinct. And we cannot do this without a precinct.”

“I am working with our bosses, the chief, I’m working with other city agencies, department heads to figure out how best to offer police services,” Sano added. “But I will tell you, and this is me speaking, I’m not going to allow this precinct to be taken over.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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