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caption: Police officers pause next to a sign outside a restaurant as they observe a May Day anti-capitalism march on Friday, May 1, 2015, in Seattle. Seattle councilmember Bruce Harrell criticized police for how they responded to protesters.
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Police officers pause next to a sign outside a restaurant as they observe a May Day anti-capitalism march on Friday, May 1, 2015, in Seattle. Seattle councilmember Bruce Harrell criticized police for how they responded to protesters.
Credit: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Blast balls and projectiles: Seattle police have a history of crowd control criticism

Seattle police officers’ use of blast balls and projectiles against protesters alarmed community members, elected officials and police accountability experts.

And that was in 2015 and 2016.

While 2020 has brought sharp criticism (and bans) over the use of blast balls, tear gas, and other less-than-lethal weapons by Seattle police, it is not the first time such concerns have been raised. Critics say previous incidents and public outcry have resulted in unanswered letters, buried reports, and a general lack of follow through.

“I don’t think lessons were learned," said former Seattle Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who served in 2015 and 2016 when the city faced push back over police tactics during demonstrations.

While SPD announced an independent review of its crowd management practices in 2015, the results were never published. And Seattle’s inspector general says it’s unclear whether Seattle police pursued the reviewer’s recommendation to hold officers “individually accountable” if they misused blast balls and projectiles.

“A re-imagined police department does not ask police to abandon their concern for their own personal safety or concede property destruction to anarchists,” Harrell said this week.

But Harrell said police must ask with every tactical decision they make: “Is this the smartest action I can take if I believe Black Lives Matter and life is precious?”

When Harrell accused SPD of failing to de-escalate May Day protests in 2015, then-SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole pushed back in a written statement saying she was “shocked and disappointed” by his comments.

2015

The Seattle Community Police Commission, made up of citizen volunteers, sent SPD a letter in May 2015 asking for a review of the agency’s handling of Black Lives Matter protests as well as May Day events. They questioned whether some officers’ use of pepper spray, blast balls (a type of grenade) and other projectiles violated department policies. The CPC also criticized “inaccurate statements made by SPD leadership” for diminishing public trust.

By July 2015, Chief O’Toole appointed the independent panel to “benchmark” SPD policies against best practice and make recommendations for improvement. The panel included the Center for Policing Equity and police expert Steve Ijames. But no recommendations were ever publicly presented. According to the Stranger, the report by Ijames only became public as the result of a lawsuit. Another panel member doesn’t appear to have submitted anything.

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Steve Ijames Report 4-28-16

A report by police expert Steve Ijames, released in 2016.

The Center for Policing Equity also released its own report, dated 2017.

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Center for Policing Equity 2017 report - The Science of Justice.pdf

SPD spokesperson Sgt. Lauren Truscott provided the reports this week but says at the time they were meant for internal use.

They “were not intended to be external evaluations for the department, but instead were seen as outside experts offering recommendations for future events," she said.

Truscott said both the Center for Policing Equity and Ijames provided informal feedback along the way, but by the time final versions were completed, “most of the recommendations had been put into effect and the reports became more historical than prescriptive.”

Truscott said they were released “through public disclosure/discovery requests, but were never broadly published.”

The resulting report from the Center for Policing Equity praised SPD's existing policies, but recommended that SPD "further pursue explanations of the elevated severe use of force during demonstrations" and "collect data on demonstration march routes in order to track police/community interactions more precisely."

2016

The CPC wrote another letter to SPD in 2016 citing blast ball injuries to bystanders and observers during May Day that year. The group asked SPD to suspend use of blast balls pending a review of the injuries.

But last month, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in Seattle, CPC co-chair Prachi Dave told Mayor Jenny Durkan that SPD never responded.

“We could copy and paste those letters and resend right now, and they would be just as relevant,” Dave said.

CPC spokesperson Jesse Franz says SPD did make some changes to its crowd control policy and training in response to these letters, but “it’s not clear whether even those modest reforms were implemented during these latest protests.”

2020

Seattle’s Inspector General Lisa Judge has completed a preliminary review of SPD’s demonstration response during the recent protests against racism and police brutality that began May 29, after the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer. She noted that after the 2015 protests, both the city’s Office of Police Accountability and Ijames recommended follow-up by SPD.

The OPA said SPD must work to ensure blast balls are not used too close to people or thrown overhand. And to make sure that launched projectiles don’t strike and injure peaceful protesters. Chief O’Toole responded to OPA in 2016 that SPD’s Force Review Board had already identified use of blast balls as requiring further study and training. But she didn’t commit to any specifics.

This woman 'died three times' after Seattle police hit her with a blast ball

Ijames, who helped author policies on less-lethal weapons for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said SPD’s policies were comprehensive and misuse of blast balls and projectiles did not appear to be pervasive. But he said blast balls are explosives, “fully capable (as warned by the manufacturer) of causing death or serious injury if ignited against or in close proximity to a vital body part.” For that reason, Ijames said, he recommended that SPD identify any officers who violated policy and training and hold them accountable.

Seattle’s Inspector General says it’s unclear at this point whether that happened. OIG Lisa Judge wrote last month, “OIG was unable to determine if SPD had completed the inquiry recommended by Mr. Ijames. Analysis of the status of previous recommendations will be provided in a future report.”

Seattle bans less-than-lethal weapons

The May Day protests in 2015 left three officers injured, two seriously. Five officers were injured the next year. The CPC’s initial letter was deferential and acknowledged the complexities SPD faced policing a mix of peaceful and violent demonstrators. The commission wrote that even some of its own members “are critical of various tactics employed by some demonstrators, and that these tactics may, in some instances, have placed SPD in challenging situations where no choice would be well received,” the CPC wrote.

This year, one demonstrator, Aubreanna Inda, went into cardiac arrest multiple times after being hit with a blast ball. And SPD critics have issued more blunt, insistent and apparently successful calls for eliminating less-lethal weapons.

Even as a federal judge granted a restraining order June 12 forbidding use of all crowd control methods including tear gas and blast balls in Seattle, within days the city council passed a sweeping ban on the same less-lethal weapons. It happened so quickly, the Community Police Commission didn’t have a chance to submit comments.

The city’s police oversight agencies say the law may go too far. The OPA wrote, “it could result in SPD being functionally unable to police large scale riots or harm to people in the future or, in the alternative, would require them to do so with no tools other than batons and firearms.”

Seattle’s Office of Inspector General said if the ban is allowed to take effect, it will puts Seattle outside the mainstream: “OIG did not find credible external sources advocating a blanket ban on the use of less lethal weapons either in general patrol operations or crowd control," it said in its preliminary review.

The Seattle Police Officers Guild has asserted that the ban must be subject to collective bargaining.