Seattle council approves bill limiting SPD’s use of less lethal weapons during protests

Aug 16, 2021, 8:36 AM | Updated: Aug 17, 2021, 10:55 am
SPD staff attrition, less lethal weapons...
Seattle police officers carry boxes with warning stickers and a slip of paper that reads "blast balls" as police clash with protesters following a "Youth Day of Action and Solidarity with Portland" demonstration in Seattle, Washington on July 25, 2020. (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

The Seattle City Council has approved new limits on crowd control weapons for Seattle police.

In a 7-0 vote, the Seattle City Council approved a new version of its crowd control ordinance. The ordinance restricts the use of less lethal options such as tear gas, pepper spray, and flash bang devices, while totally banning the use of blast balls and a handful of other crowd control weapons.

Seattle to weigh ‘tiered approach’ to SPD’s use of less lethal weapons

During the height of protests in Seattle over the death of George Floyd, Seattle police responded to large crowds of mostly peaceful protesters by frequently using tear gas, flash bangs, pepper spray, blast balls and foam tipped projectiles to disperse the crowds. While a handful of demonstrators within the massive crowds, sometimes numbering in the thousands, would hurl frozen water bottles, glass bottles, and rocks at some officers, the frequent deployment of tear gas and other crowd control weapons was indiscriminate, often injuring those just exercising the right to protest and, in some cases, those not even taking part in the demonstrations, as Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda highlighted ahead of Monday’s vote.

“I think the importance of this legislation cannot be understated, especially as the memories of last year and the response to the protests are still relatively fresh in many of our minds,” Mosqueda said.

“We all remember the stories, we all remember the public testimony, the hours of calls that we received as people expressed their frustration, and many times, their surprise and shock about the response to the protests that were standing up in support of Black lives. We also heard that members of the press, legal observers, medics have been pepper sprayed or been hit by projectiles like blast balls and launchers. We saw a video of a child being sprayed in our streets in downtown Seattle at short range in the face, and we’ve heard the testimony of the father of a 9-month-old baby who was calling for an end to the use of tear gas in our most dense neighborhood in Seattle on Capitol Hill, the father of a 9-month-old who had woken up to their baby foaming at the mouth,” Mosqueda recalled.

Details like those were what led to the initial crowd control ordinance from Councilmember Kshama Sawant that banned the purchase and use of nearly all crowd control weapons in June of 2020.

Under the original bill, no Seattle agency may own, purchase, rent, store or use “kinetic impact projectiles, chemical irritants, acoustic weapons, directed energy weapons, water cannons, disorientation devices, ultrasonic cannons or any other device” used similarly. It permitted the use of pepper spray, but not during protests.

However, in July 2020, the judge overseeing the consent decree first issued a temporary restraining order blocking the ordinance from taking effect when the Justice Department sued, citing its conflicts with the consent decree. That was eventually extended, blocking the law from ever taking effect and sending the council back to the drawing board.

“It’s perhaps not as broad as the legislation that we all voted in favor on in June last year, but still, I think it’s a strong effort for the city of Seattle to take this position regulating these weapons in the goal of preserving civil liberties and the rights of folks to protest,” Herbold said ahead of a final vote.

“For the past year, the council has heard the call of our constituents that they want a police department dedicated to true community public safety, and that peaceful protests should not be met with force that can harm entire communities,” Herbold said. “While the council responded swiftly to those calls last year, we’ve spent the last year ensuring the development of policy regulating the use of less-lethal weapons is consistent with the obligations under the federal consent decree, and worked in collaboration with our police accountability partners. The legislation maintains an absolute ban on blast balls and other disorientation devices. However, the legislation allows, in narrow circumstances, use of tear gas and pepper spray during a violent public disturbance. As the Community Police Commission said, there is still work to be done. But this is a good start in ensuring we’re balancing protections for free speech at demonstrations with the ability of officers to respond to violent activities.”

Herbold delayed sending the bill to the full council until an Aug. 10 status hearing on the federal consent decree to listen for any comments Judge James Robart or the federal monitor may have on the ordinance. It did not come up at the hearing, she noted, so she believed the next best step was the full council vote, as did Council President Lorena Gonzales.

“I want to emphasize my fervent belief that we have really done everything we can as a city council to protect the integrity of our legislative authority while also complying with what we think our legal obligations are with the consent decree,” Gonzalez said.

Under the bill, the use of tear gas would be limited to two scenarios:

  • By SWAT officers outside of a protest or demonstration setting, where its use is considered “reasonably necessary to prevent threat of imminent loss of life or seriously bodily injury, and the risk of serious bodily injury outweighs the risk of harm to bystanders.”
  • In a violent public disturbance, under the direction of officers who have been trained in its use within the last 12 months, “with a detailed tactical plan developed prior to deployment,” and if its use is “reasonably necessary” to prevent death or serious injuries.

Pepper spray would be permitted at any protest that escalates into a violent public disturbance, or for basic crowd control purposes.

Forty-millimeter launchers used to deploy chemical irritants like pepper balls would not permitted for crowd control, and instead would be limited to targeted use in scenarios or demonstrations where the risk of bodily injuries outweighs the risk of harm to bystanders.

Oversight groups differ on how to handle crowd control weapons ban

Weapons like flash bangs and “noise diversion devices” would be banned for rallies and demonstrations, and limited to SWAT officers outside of protest settings.

The bill would also allow 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.”

Now that it has passed, the legislation will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as federal monitors overseeing Seattle’s ongoing policing consent decree. The council had previously run afoul of the DOJ after passing a more stringent ban on SPD’s use of less lethal weapons in June of 2020. The hope this time around is that a more collaborative process between the city and federal monitors will yield better results for all parties.

KIRO Radio reporter Hanna Scott contributed to this report.

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Seattle council approves bill limiting SPD’s use of less lethal weapons during protests