Seattle council to weigh ‘tiered approach’ to limiting SPD’s use of crowd control weapons

Jun 21, 2021, 11:56 AM | Updated: Jun 22, 2021, 5:20 am
Seattle protest, crowd control weapons...
Seattle police dispersing pepper spray during a July 2020 protest. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold will be introducing an updated version of a bill this week designed to impose limits on the police department’s use of crowd control weapons.

This marks the culmination of a year-long saga which began in June of 2020, when Seattle councilmembers unanimously approved a ban on SPD’s use of tear gas, pepper spray, and blast balls. The bill’s implementation was quickly halted though, with federal Judge James Robart — who oversees SPD’s ongoing consent decree — citing the need for more feedback on its potential impacts.

That had Seattle’s three police accountability groups — the Office of Police Accountability, the Community Police Commission, and the Office of the Inspector General — submitting their own recommendations in September of 2020. All three groups agreed that large-scale changes to SPD’s crowd control methods needed to be changed, but differed on whether some less-lethal weapons should be allowed in specific situations.

Oversight groups differ on how to handle crowd control weapons ban

Then in January of 2021, Councilmember Herbold announced her intention to craft a new version of that original legislation, using recommendations from Seattle’s accountability groups and the council’s public safety committee as a starting point, before sending a draft version to the Department of Justice and Judge Robart for further input. A month later, Robart reiterated the need for a more “collaborative effort” from the council regarding police reform.

That draft bill has now received feedback from Robart and federal monitors after receiving it in early February. It will be formally introduced in the council’s public safety committee on Tuesday. Herbold detailed several of the key changes suggested by the DOJ during Monday morning’s briefing as well, including:

  • Giving SPD 60 days to update its policies following the measure’s passage
  • Conditioning the use of less lethal weapons during rallies or demonstrations “on whether or not the risk of serious bodily injury from violent action outweighs the risk to bystanders”
  • Specifically defining “crowd control” as having “the intent to move or disperse a crowd”

Herbold describes the larger bill as taking a “tiered approach” to certain weapons, allowing SWAT to use tear gas during “violent public disturbances,” provided it’s under the supervision of officers who have been trained in its use within the last 12 months, is part of a “detailed tactical plan” drafted before it’s deployed, and is “reasonably necessary to prevent threat of imminent loss of life or serious bodily injury.” A “violent public disturbance” is defined in the legislation as “any gathering where 12 or more persons threaten to use unlawful violence towards another person or group of people.”

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

It also includes full bans on acoustic weapons, blast balls, ultrasonic cannons, and water cannons. Weapons like flash bangs and “noise diversion devices” would be banned for rallies and demonstrations, while pepper spray would be permitted at any protest that escalates into a violent public disturbance, or for basic crowd control purposes.

It does not carve out exceptions for officers to use less lethal weapons to disperse crowds in the event of property damage, instead focusing on situations where there’s a direct threat of harm to other people. It also allows someone to take legal action against the City of Seattle “for physical or emotional injuries proximately cause by the use of less lethal weapons,” provided that it wasn’t during a “violent public disturbance.”

Councilmembers will begin discussion on the bill in committee on Tuesday, but will not likely vote on it until July.

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Seattle council to weigh ‘tiered approach’ to limiting SPD’s use of crowd control weapons