Seattle Police Won't Sideline Superheroes On May Day

Apr 26, 2013

City police departments often have testy relations with their local superheroes, at least in the movies. In "The Amazing Spider-Man" they issue a warrant for his arrest. In "The Dark Knight Rises," a cop pledges to take down Batman.

A real-life report to the Seattle Police Department seems to echo those comic-book plotlines. It advises SPD to explore legal strategies to restrict superheroes this coming May Day from “creating crime and interfering with law enforcement operations.” It’s one of the recommendations in the report written by Michael Hillman, former deputy chief for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Hillman’s concerns stem from last May Day. He said members of the Rain City Superhero Movement “were allowed to participate in the melee” at the Federal Court of Appeals building, resulting in allegations of assaults and crimes.

The scuffle at the courthouse was captured on video by the local superhero who calls himself Phoenix Jones. Jones, whose real name is Benjamin Fodor, regularly walks the streets of Seattle in costume, carrying a Taser, pepper spray and a body camera to record his encounters. He said he and his friends were trying to defend the federal courthouse from vandals since police weren’t taking action. And one of the superheroes did use pepper spray.

Jones ridiculed the Hillman recommendation. He said the idea that SPD can single out any special group of people and restrict them is absurd. “You can’t say that! What that should say is, people who are doing illegal activities should be stopped,” Jones said.

Law Enforcement Response

Seattle Police are quick to agree. They have no plans to take proactive steps against superheroes or any other group. Jim Pugel is SPD’s interim police chief. "We cannot get into the mind of individuals and take enforcement based on the way they’re dressed, even if it is a superhero uniform," Pugel said. "We can only do something once the action has been observed and that action is illegal."

Pugel said he’d be happy to talk to the superheroes if they have any questions about what types of behavior are allowed. “Phoenix could get ahold of me or one of the commanders in the Police Department,” he said.

The Hillman report suggested that SPD work with Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes to keep superheroes out of the way, but Holmes agreed with police that their hands are constitutionally tied.  “While you cannot control what protesters will do, it’s similarly difficult to have prior restraint, if you will, for a self-appointed superhero,” Holmes said.

But Holmes emphasized that Seattle does not encourage vigilantism and the superheroes should be aware of the liability they face if they hurt anyone. He said if last year is any indication, they won’t be the only ones in costumes and it’s going to be very difficult in the confusion for police to distinguish between someone who’s a self-appointed "good guy" and someone who’s trying to do mischief.

More Superheroes At May Day 2013

Despite those words of caution, Phoenix Jones said his group’s presence in Seattle is expanding. On a recent spring evening Jones walked the streets of Seattle’s University District. Star-struck college students stopped him to praise his efforts and snap his picture. They said they’ve watched him fight in the videos he posts online.

Jones considers himself aligned with law enforcement, however reluctant they may be to accept his help. He said he turned over his video of the May Day conflict  to prosecutors. He takes that vandalism inflicted by protesters personally. “The Rain City Superhero Movement, my whole team, will not allow that to happen again. Every business owner that had something happen last year, I apologize, and it will not happen again,” Jones said.

Jones said he already notified SPD that his group will have anywhere from 17 to 30 superheroes on the ground this year, up from four last year. "[SPD] let me know that they had it handled, and I said, ‘perfect then you won’t need us, but we’ll see you there.’”

Jones said he may be eccentric, but he’s fighting for an idealistic vision. Meanwhile SPD Chief Jim Pugel said police officers will have a higher profile on the street this year than last May Day, so superheroes may have fewer opportunities to act.