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Updated rules for SPD’s use of crowd control weapons clear council committee

SPD at recent protests in Seattle. (Getty Images)

Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee has advanced an updated version of a crowd control weapon ordinance originally proposed last year during the height of protests over the death of George Floyd.

Council to weigh ‘tiered approach’ to SPD’s use of crowd control weapons

“This legislation builds off of the legislation originally introduced by Councilmember Sawant and unanimously adopted by the council,” explained Committee Chair Lisa Herbold.

The original ordinance approved last year would have totally banned the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and other chemical weapons by Seattle Police, but was never implemented over concerns raised by the Justice Department and the federal judge overseeing the city’s ongoing consent decree. Federal Judge James Robart ultimately issued a restraining order.

Over a year since the original version passed, this new updated version would outright ban the use of five less than lethal options, including blast balls, a weapon the federal judge had particular concern about, citing how they were used indiscriminately against protesters for crowd control.

Unlike the original version, this proposal allows the limited use of tear gas, pepper spray, and other less lethal options, but only in very specific circumstances. To use them during a demonstration, that gathering must be a violent demonstration that puts public safety at risk, where risk outweighs the potential harm to the public using the weapons poses.

In most cases, the weapons could only be used by an officer who had recently been through training on the use of the less lethal options and who had a tactical plan.

The ordinance also specifically allows people injured emotionally or physically due to SPD violating the rules to sue the city. An amendment added by Herbold also permits legal action even if the person was taking part in a violent demonstration.

Oversight groups differ on how to handle crowd control weapons ban

However, another amendment from Councilmember Kshama Sawant that would have eliminated language barring anyone engaged in criminal activity from being able to sue did not pass.

“So often, politicians in the Democratic Party are wringing their hands, and lament how difficult it is to hold police accountable when there are outrageous examples of police brutality that make the news,” Sawant said Tuesday. “Loopholes like these are why this happens — this sort of loophole is why it’s so difficult to hold the police accountable.”

“I’m predicting that most or all councilmembers except for me will be voting ‘no’ on [my amendment], and it’s a testament to the massive pressure that the Democrats on this council are under because of all the promises that they made last year in the thick of the protests, and then one by one by one, those promises were walked back,” she later added.

Herbold described the measure as the best option possible given the limitations the council was under due the consent decree, noting it had been specifically crafted to address Judge Robart’s concerns.

The ordinance was approved by the committee with Sawant operating as the lone no vote, citing the fact that this version was much more watered down compared to her original version.

The full council will eventually vote on the proposal, but not until a status hearing on the consent decree set for next month, where Herbold said they could determine whether Judge Robart has any issues with the reworked proposal.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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