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Seattle police, tear gas, OPA
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OPA recommends changes to how SPD deploys blast balls, tear gas

Police clashing with Seattle protesters in early June of 2020. (Getty Images)

Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) released its latest findings regarding protests that occurred during the summer of 2020, offering a handful of recommendations for how police should deploy crowd control weapons in the future.

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The OPA has been sifting through complaints filed against Seattle police officers over protests for months, releasing its findings in batches. In this latest release, it found that in at least three instances, officers had deployed tear gas and blast balls indiscriminately, “without being fully aware of their surroundings.”

“Some blast balls hit people who were not posing a risk to public safety or property,” the OPA found, including an incident where an NBC News reporter was struck by a flash bang grenade in June.

In another instance regarding a June 1 protest, the OPA ruled that SPD’s deployment of tear gas, blast balls, and pepper spray was “not proportional to the risk of injury/damage that dispersal would cause.”

The hope from the OPA is to have these incidents be instructive toward better, more comprehensive policies regarding crowd dispersal techniques employed by the Seattle Police Department. Its recommendations include:

  • Modifying SPD’s policy surrounding blast balls to prohibit officers from firing them directly into crowds “unless individuals in those crowds pose a direct threat of harm to officers.” Justifications for deployment would not include a refusal to comply with an order to disperse.
  • Prohibiting officers from deploying blast balls by throwing them overhand, and instead training officers to roll them underhand.
  • Prohibiting officers from deploying blast balls directly at a person’s body unless an officer is in imminent danger of bodily harm or death.
  • Requiring chain-of-command screening for all social media posts concerning protests as they’re occurring, and reiterating “that while getting information out quickly is laudable, that desire should not undermine accuracy.”

These recommendations come as Seattle City Council is beginning the process of drafting new legislation to limit the SPD’s use of crowd control weapons.

Federal judge cautions council to be ‘mindful’ of consent decree

In 2020, a sweeping ban on less-lethal weapons was struck down by U.S. District Judge James Robart. The hope is that with this new proposal, the council will have the approval of the city’s three police accountability agencies before the legislation passes, as well as the federal monitor overseeing an ongoing consent decree.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold plans to have a bill introduced and voted out of the public safety committee on Jan. 26, followed by a lengthy approval process involving the U.S. Department of Justice and Judge Robart.

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