By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
Last week, the Seattle City Council, by a vote of 7-0, approved legislation that would prohibit the Seattle Police Department (SPD) from using less lethal weapons to quelch peaceful protest when they become violent.
The legislation, which is a direct response to local protest following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, bans the use of blast balls, acoustic weapons, direct energy weapons, water cannons and ultrasound canons by SPD to help disperse large crowds.
However, the legislation does allow limited use of tear gas and pepper spray during a violent public disturbance as long as SWAT teams are on the scene and involved in their deployment.
During the unprecedented number of protests that occurred in Seattle during 2020, protestors and many segments of the population in Seattle took issue with the use of non-lethal weapons employed by SPD to disperse the crowds after some parties within the group of protesters began vandalizing/damaging property, committing crimes and inciting violence. In their view, the tactics employed by SPD were excessive and caused injury to many individuals who were peacefully protesting, including some children.
Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold says that she and her colleagues heard the pleas to limit the use of non-lethal weapons from their constituents and responded with this legislation.
“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,” says Herbold. “That peaceful protests should not be met with force that can harm entire communities.”
According to Former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, the legislation is not one that was very well thought out.
Best says that while the intent of the legislation, to allow people to peacefully protest and make social statements without fear of retaliation, is good, the reality is that it makes it much more difficult for the police to disperse crowds and unlawful/criminal elements that have integrated themselves into the crowds that threaten the safety of both officers and the protestors.
Critics of the legislation agree and say that by alleviating certain methods of crowd control doesn’t give law enforcement very many options. In some cases, opponents fear that the escalation of options can go directly from non-lethal weapons like pepper spray to lethal weapons if law enforcement doesn’t have other non-lethal options at their disposal.
“Here’s the challenge in this law,” says Best. [During the George Floyd protests in Seattle] there were thousands of people [out] there not doing a darn thing but being present and protesting, thousands, but there were small groups embedded within those groups who were causing problems for us [SPD].”
“In some circumstances…you can have a group or just a few people who can create an amazing amount of disruption,” continued Best. “We [the police] have to respond in ways that number one minimizes any people or bystanders from getting hurt but also provides the lowest level necessary to quelch the circumstance and going from pepper spray to firearms doesn’t do that.”
While she does acknowledge that some changes to SPD’s tactics are warranted due to a few bad actors, Best also emphasizes that city officials must find common ground solutions that allow law enforcement to do their job, and effectively negate the efforts of any criminal and/or illegal elements that may tarnish the efforts of those wanting to express their grievances peacefully.
“We have to acknowledge that we have imperfect responses to some of these situations and there does need to be very intense scrutiny about what happens,” says Best. “But we also have to acknowledge that we need to have responses to criminal and illegal behavior. So, these are not responses to people exercising their first amendment to free speech, but I am talking about engaging people in criminal and illegal behavior.
Claude Burfect, acting President of the Seattle/King County Chapter of the NAACP, believes that although the effort is noteworthy, there is still more work to be done. According to Burfect, there are more conversations that need to take place with regards to the use of all weapons used by law enforcement to disperse crowds, and those conversations, in his opinion, need to start with the communities that will be affected the most.
“On the one hand they are trying to rectify the situation,” says Burfect. “But, on the other hand I’m still not convinced [this is the right decision] because there are lethal weapons they are still not banning. So, it’s a good start to try to implement some things that can prevent using non-lethal weapons but they’re still not addressing all of the weapons being used.”
“Again, it is a start, but they have not accomplished all that needs to be accomplished,” adds Burfect. “The one thing missing, in all of this, is the presence and input of those affected by all of this and that is the representation and input of the Black community.”
Because SPD was under a Federal Consent Decree to help establish legal parameters for police accountability and the protection of civil rights for citizens by the department, the City Council hopes that this bill will address and continue to uphold the work that has already done in accordance with the Consent Decree.
According to Herbold, the legislation protects the rights of citizens to assemble and protest and is in line with the terms of the consent decree and what the public would like to see as it relates to law enforcement and how they interact with and manage large crowds that are expressing their right of free speech.
“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,” says Herbold. “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.”
In accordance with the Consent Decree, the new law will not take effect until a federal judge gives their approval.