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Former federal monitor issues rebuke of SPD’s crowd control methods at protests

Police pepper spray protesters Saturday, July 25, 2020, near Seattle Central Community College in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A former federal monitor for Seattle’s consent decree issued a memorandum this week, calling on the city’s police department to drastically overhaul its crowd control training and policies.

‘May take a while’ before SPD is ready to end consent decree

Merrick Bobb resigned from his role as monitor after eight years, saying that it was time to move on. Over that period, he almost led the city of Seattle and the SPD through the final chapter of the consent decree, before the effort was derailed by allegations of police conduct at protests beginning in May.

Now no longer in that role, Bobb issued a thorough summary addressed to Mayor Jenny Durkan, City Council, the City Attorney’s Office, and the DOH, outlining what he thinks SPD should do to improve the way it handles protests and riots.

Bobb pointed to what he calls “an apparent absence of an overall strategic plan” from SPD in managing escalating situations at demonstrations over the summer.

“Captains, lieutenants, and sergeants did not appear to have a clear sense of what to do, and rank-and-file officers, it seemed, were left to their own devices to figure out ad hoc what to do,” he detailed in his memorandum.

Bobb proposes SPD create a “new Tactical Unit,” which “should come up with strategies, educational and training materials, and levels of accountability up the chain of command in any instance.” That unit would also run tabletop exercises with a variety of scenarios to prepare commanders and officers for what to expect during protests.

Bobb also cited what he viewed as “inadequate sensitivity to First Amendment rights and the rights of those protesters injured or wounded,” particularly in SPD’s use of crowd control weapons.

“The role of the police is to see that First Amendment activity is protected,” he said. “Clouds of tear gas that cause individuals to flee in pain rather than continuing to protest is not protection.”

“Of course, there are cynical and violent individuals in the crowd intermixed with legitimate protesters,” he added. “The SPD did not seem to have an adequately developed plan to isolate those individuals.”

Bobb voiced his support for a recent recommendation from the city’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) to cease the use of tear gas during protests altogether.

“OPA concludes in its recommendations that SPD should not be reauthorized to use CS gas. I agree,” he stated. “There is no legitimate use of CS gas that could not be accomplished with other less potentially injurious tools.”

His position on other crowd control weapons was more nebulous, noting that measures like blast balls and rubber bullets, while dangerous if used improperly, can be effective if implemented with more stringent guidelines and better training. At least in the short term, he recommended an “immediate moratorium” on the use of blast balls “until such time as the SPD amends its policies” to restrict their use to situations where an officer “is facing immediate threat of death or serious physical injury.”

Seattle gets more time to comply with police consent decree

Bobb went on to levy criticism against SPD’s treatment of journalists and medics at protests, which included an NBC News reporter being hit directly by a flash bang on-air in early June.

“It was as if the rank-and-file of the SPD had not been taught that one never is to attack or prevent journalists from doing their job as long as it is possible to protect them and as long as they are not actually preventing the police to function,” he said. “By the same token, to prevent or frustrate medics from caring for the injured or wounded is inhumane. It is astonishing that any officer in the SPD would do that or allow their peers to do it.”

Seattle continues to operate under a federal consent decree enacted in 2012. Judge James Robart named Dr. Antonio Oftelie — a Harvard fellow with a lengthy record on policing, policy, and technology — to replace Bobb as monitor in early September. Monisha Harrell, chair of Equal Rights Washington and one of the main drivers behind I-940, was also named deputy monitor.

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