MYNORTHWEST NEWS

Seattle council wary of large changes to SPD policies after rebuke from judge

Feb 9, 2021, 5:29 AM | Updated: Feb 10, 2021, 7:00 am

Seattle City Councilmembers voted to send their updated proposal limiting the police department’s use of crowd control weapons on to federal monitors, but held off on a bill that would have cut SPD’s 2021 budget by $5.4 million.

Oversight groups differ on how to handle crowd control weapons ban

The updated crowd control weapons policy comes as part of a push to draft legislation that aligns with recommendations from the city’s police oversight groups, and an ongoing consent decree the SPD has operated under since 2012.

The new bill adds exceptions to language banning the use of launchers to deploy chemical irritants during “non-violent” demonstrations. In the most recent draft, exceptions were built out for 40 millimeter launchers and “noise flash diversionary devices” in the event a protest is deemed a violent threat.

That would broadly allow law enforcement to launch and deploy crowd control measures like pepper spray and flash bangs in situations where “serious injury from violent actions outweighs the risk of harm to bystanders.”

There is also an exception built in for tear gas, provided it’s deployed under the direction of officers who have been properly trained in its use as part of a “detailed tactical plan developed prior to employment,” and is “reasonably necessary to prevent threat of imminent loss of life or serious bodily injury.”

That proposal was met with mixed reactions from councilmembers, who were admonished last week by U.S. District Court Judge James Robart, who oversees the consent decree at the judicial level. Robart criticized the council for hastily passing a broad ban on all crowd control weapons last summer, flouting mandates in the decree that require all changes to the SPD’s use of force policies to be approved by federal monitors.

That had councilmembers mindful of running afoul of Robart and the consent decree again with this bill.

“Judge Robart’s authority and role within the consent decree needs to be acknowledged and respected, and indeed if it isn’t, he will acknowledge it for us,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis noted.

Lewis went on to point out that an order from a separate judge in 2020 did enact temporary limitations to the SPD’s use of less lethal tools during protests in the form of an injunction, and that the council now has a chance to make those changes permanent. To him, that means the choice was to either do just that, or risk having Judge Robart leave the council with nothing.

“The choice that is really before this council is not whether we’re watering down the protections that have never been in place to begin with — it is whether we effectively create any protections at all,” Lewis said.

Agreeing with Lewis was Councilmember Tammy Morales, who said she didn’t “want our efforts to make some important changes to be rejected by the judge, and to leave us with nothing, which is very likely if the judge’s concerns aren’t addressed.”

Council President Lorena Gonzalez further pointed out that while she believes the bill is “still imperfect,” the council’s ability to comprehensively change these policies will likely be limited by Robart in the days to come.

“Unfortunately, the federal court overseeing the consent decree has and likely will continue to question the council’s legal authority to pass laws related to how, when, and whether the Seattle Police Department can use force,” she said. “That means that the city council is likely going to be hamstrung in its ability to legislatively regulate use of force.”

Councilmembers ultimately voted 4-1 in favor of sending the draft bill to Judge Robart and federal monitors to review. Kshama Sawant was the lone “no” vote, stating that “this is not about making Judge Robart happy.”

“At the end of the day, it is about the city council doing the right thing, and that does mean using your podium to either stand with movements and communities of color, or throwing up your hands and saying, ‘this is what we have under the consent decree,'” she opined.

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

The public safety committee had also previously planned to take up a measure to reduce the SPD’s budget appropriations for 2021 by $5.4 million, and instead direct that money toward “participatory budgeting” for community-led efforts to reimagine public safety. A sizable portion of that money would have come from “salary savings” that resulted from the high rate of officers who voluntarily left the department toward the end of 2020.

At the start of Tuesday’s committee meeting, though, Councilmember Lisa Herbold announced that they would be tabling that budget cut proposal “while the city communicates with the monitor and the court overseeing the consent decree.”

“The city recognizes that additional major reductions to SPD staff could threaten to undermine consent decree reforms in areas, such as supervision, use of force training, investigation, and review,” Herbold detailed. “The city will work with the monitor and the DOJ to prevent that outcome.”

The bill is expected to be brought back up the next time the council’s public safety committee meets two weeks from Tuesday.

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Seattle council wary of large changes to SPD policies after rebuke from judge