SPD’s protest response did more harm than good according to new report

Jul 23, 2021, 3:20 PM
Seattle protesters, police...
Police clashing with protesters on Capitol Hill in June of 2020. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The first of several reports on last year’s protests from the Office of Inspector General — the top tier of Seattle’s Police Accountability system – is out, and says not only were the tactics used by SPD during protests in 2020 inadequate, they actually contributed to the escalation of violence and civil unrest that gripped the city for months.

Council digs in to OPA report on complaints against SPD from 2020 protests

But, Inspector General Lisa Judge says assigning blame was not the goal of the “Sentinel Event Review” they conducted into the protests.

“The individual accountability is very important,” she noted. “SPD’s agency accountability is very important in this, but we thought the best way we could use our resources was to really do a deep dive to understand what happened, and help everybody move in a forward thinking direction.”

“It starts from a place of, ‘yes, we understand things didn’t go the way people wanted in the way people expect,'” she continued. “So we start from a place of acknowledging that and then moving forward now that we have acknowledged that this isn’t what we want, how do we fix it?”

The 112-page report focuses only on the initial days of 2020’s protests between May 29 to June 1, days that saw the downtown core torn apart and countless businesses damaged, and that culminated with the so-called pink umbrella incident on Capitol Hill on June 1.

That particular incident ended with thousands of mostly peaceful protests fleeing down Pine Street to get away from the barrage of tear gas, blast balls, and pepper spray officers deployed after an hours-long stand-off outside the East Precinct. That also made for a situation Judge says was likely the result of both sides making incorrect assumptions about the other’s intent, according to the report.

“When the crowd started seeing SPD put on equipment that would indicate they were going to deploy chemical munitions, the crowd responded,” Judge explained. “You could argue defensively and reactively by saying, ‘okay, we have these umbrellas so that we don’t get pepper sprayed in the face.'”

“When the umbrellas were coming out, I think officers were saying ‘we think that’s … an offensive tactic where they’re going to do something to us, so we had better fortify ourselves and put on protective equipment.’ Everybody was making faulty assumptions about everybody, and the key there is there was no communication,” she added.

Communication was also a key factor in the report, and something Judge says must happen well before anyone is even planning a protest.

“It needs to be relationship-building every day that SPD does, to get to know and develop deeper relationships with the people that they serve,” she laid out. “So that when you get in those situations, there is some trust already in some or at least a mutual understanding of what they’re doing. There’s communication to the crowd at large about we see ‘X’ happening in the crowd, so here is what we were doing, we want you to be prepared — there’s that kind of broad communication.”

“One of the recommendations we have is that SPD actually train and identify people, it doesn’t have to be police officers, it could be civilian employees or volunteers, but folks who are out in the crowd, facilitating actual real time dialogue with people in the crowd, so that they can then convey that to police decision makers, so that police decision makers aren’t making decisions based on speculation about what they think the crowd is thinking about to do,” she detailed.

Many are critical of complaints concerning Seattle police officers, who until these protests had been upheld as the model for the nation on protest management and policing in general, following eight years under a federal consent decree, and earlier issues working May Day and Occupy movement protests that ultimately led to significant changes in the way SPD approached protests.

“I think there are some real critical differences here,” Judge said. “One, most of those other protests have started about something else. This one really was about policing. And I think that SPD, while they had an awareness and an understanding of that, I don’t think it really sunk in, and one of the critical things I think the report gets into is this notion of legitimacy. I think that’s probably the linchpin of where all of this really starts to gel and where change starts to happen.”

The issue of legitimacy speaks specifically to what officers believe they’re authorized to do, versus what the community does.

“Police officers operate under a system of laws and rules, and there’s general belief that as long as you’re operating within those parameters, what you are doing is legitimate,” she said. “We kind of call that structural legitimacy in the report.”

“The legitimacy that the community believes police officers have is very different, right?” she continued. “So that’s the perceived legitimacy of community. And what we really identified here was there was a huge gap between the community’s view of what SPD was doing as legitimate and what SPD believed they were doing. A realignment of those viewpoints about legitimacy and SPD’s authority really does come from the people. We as city employees are all servants of the people, so I think there needs to be a rebalancing of those concepts and those priorities.”

Culture and philosophy are also a big factor in the report and its 54 recommendations.

“An acknowledgement that people have a vested, critical constitutional right to come out and protest,” Judge said. “Really, appropriate philosophy for the police should be facilitation of that and providing safety.”

OPA received over 19,000 complaints against SPD from protests in 2020

“Whereas I think traditionally in policing, for any of those events, it’s been more of a ‘manage and control’ philosophy because of traffic safety, and all of those things, but really, I think there needs to be a critical fundamental shift in philosophy around that,” she added.

The issue of officer wellness also comes into play, specifically when SPD was short staffed while working extended hours in protests where the environment was hostile and negative.

“Some of the things we address are having SPD try to develop staffing models that take into account giving officers some relief, some breaks, making sure they have the ability to step back, and take a little bit of mental break,” Judge proposed. “And then some support services for dealing with trauma afterward, so that they’re able to come back out for their next shift and not take that trauma that they experienced and inflict it upon others.”

The lengthy report includes many more details here.

Judge will also present the information to the Seattle City Council next Tuesday. Four more reports are due out between now and October on the remaining waves of the protests, including the period just before SPD abandoned the East Precinct, and of course, the eventual formation of the CHOP.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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SPD’s protest response did more harm than good according to new report