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Mayor Durkan leaves newly-passed bill limiting SPD’s use of less lethal weapons unsigned

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan left a recently passed bill limiting the police department’s use of less lethal weapons during protests unsigned, labeling the legislation as “misguided” in a lengthy letter to city councilmembers.

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

The measure was approved by the Seattle City Council in a 7-0 vote in mid-August. In practice, it restricts the use of weapons such as tear gas, pepper spray, and flash bang devices — particularly during protests and demonstrations — while totally banning the use of blast balls and a handful of other crowd control weapons. The bill’s implementation is conditional on approval from the U.S. Department of Justice and federal monitors in charge of the city’s ongoing policing consent decree.

In her letter to the council, Mayor Durkan laid out a litany of objections to the ordinance, claiming that its conditional implementation is “of doubtful legality,” and that if parts of it are struck down by the DOJ, it could “undermine public trust, create confusion, and hasten more departures from SPD.”

Durkan also cites SPD’s own recent changes to its crowd management policies, while pointing to the council’s bill as operating “counter to the ongoing work to ensure changes in this critical area are based on broad community input, a systematic review of events, the actual dynamics of policing and the best national experts.”

In a written statement to MyNorthwest, the council’s Public Safety Committee Chair Lisa Herbold’s office took issue with the mayor’s criticism, noting that she had “met informally” with a federal monitor and the DOJ to discuss the bill as it was being drawn up, and had “made changes to the legislation in response to these conversations.” Herbold further added that it was “developed in compliance with, and respect for, the Consent Decree process.”

The bill itself was the culmination of a year-long saga beginning in June 2020, when the council passed a sweeping ban on the purchase and use of nearly all less lethal weapons. A federal judge overseeing the city’s consent decree blocked it from taking effect a month later.

Two months after that, Seattle’s three police accountability groups — the Office of Police Accountability, the Community Police Commission, and the Office of the Inspector General — submitted reports recommending large-scale changes to SPD’s crowd control methods, 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

In January 2021, Herbold began the process to draft a new bill that would instead focus on a “tiered approach.” This time around, the goal was to collaborate with federal monitors to ensure that the restrictions laid out in the proposal wouldn’t conflict with the consent decree.

After months of discussion, outreach, and amendments, the bill passed in August 2021. Because Mayor Durkan chose to leave it unsigned rather than issue a veto, it will still move forward.

SPD will soon be required to draft policy revisions reflecting the new limits laid out in the legislation, which will then be reviewed by the DOJ. A federal judge will also review those revisions. If the DOJ and court both approve the measure, it will then take effect.

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