Seattle Asks Court To Reverse Contempt Decision In Case Involving Use of Force Against Protesters

by Paul Kiefer

(This article originally appeared in PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement)

On Monday, the office of City Attorney Pete Holmes asked Federal District Court Judge Richard Jones to reverse his Dec.7 ruling that the city acted in contempt of a court order restricting the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) use of force at protests. In a motion filed with the Federal District Court of Western Washington, Holmes argued that Jones’ initial ruling held the city to an unreasonable standard for compliance with the court’s orders, and that the court lacked strong evidence to support the contempt ruling.

Jones’ ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed in late September by a group of plaintiffs, chiefly Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County (BLMSKC), who alleged that SPD had failed to rein in its officers’ use of “less-lethal” weapons — particularly blast balls — at protests in the late summer and early fall. Specifically, the plaintiffs accused SPD of violating an injunction Jones issued in July restricting officers’ use of force against peaceful demonstrators, journalists and legal observers.

In his Dec.7 decision, Jones didn’t accept the plaintiffs’ arguments outright, but he ruled that four clear instances in which SPD officers violated his injunction by using weapons such as blast balls “indiscriminately” against protesters was enough to place the city in contempt. Jones also noted in his ruling that these four documented cases were probably not the extent of SPD’s violations of his orders.

After Jones ruled the city in contempt, the court gave BLMSKC and the other plaintiffs four days to propose sanctions for the city. Their proposals were mild: the plaintiffs suggested that the court require the city to distribute copies of Jones’ opinion to all SPD officers, “accompanied by clear instructions about what conduct is prohibited”; send use-of-force reports to the plaintiffs within five days of any incident in which SPD uses less-lethal weapons against protesters; and pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, which totaled $263,708.

In a response to the proposed sanctions filed on Friday, attorneys for the city strongly opposed the proposal that SPD send the plaintiffs regular use-of-force reports, saying it would create a new “post-deployment use of force monitoring system to compete with the [city’s] elaborate accountability system.” The city’s legal team also said five days was too little time for SPD to provide complete use-of-force reports.  The city did not object to notifying all officers, in addition to commanders, about the injunction.

Holmes’ office claimed the attorneys for BLMSKC were asking for “inflated” fees, including charges for “unnecessary, duplicative, [and] clerical work.” In a separate document filed on Monday, the city’s team picked apart the qualifications and standard fees of the plaintiffs’ legal team, which includes attorneys from the ACLU of Washington, Seattle University Law School’s Korematsu Center, and Seattle law firm Perkins Coie.

The city was particularly critical of Perkins Coie partner David Perez, the most expensive member of the plaintiffs’ legal team at $785 an hour, and went so far as to suggest more appropriate hourly fees for Perez and the other attorneys on the case. Perez countered in his own declaration to the court on Monday, defending his hourly rate and the quality of his team’s work.

Jones is unlikely to overturn his contempt ruling based on the city’s request, but the filing sets the stage for future appeals. In the request, the city reiterated its argument that the actions of individual officers are not enough to place the city in violation of the injunction, and defended officers’ use of pepper spray and blast balls against protesters as “reasonable and necessary” in the moment.

In an email to PubliCola on Monday night, the City Attorney’s Office declined to give additional comment on the case.

Paul Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was recently hired on as the police accountability reporter for PubliCola.

Featured image by Alex Garland