Seattle Community Police Commission Provides Analyses of Proposed SPD Policies for Crowd Control and Use of Force

by Jack Russillo

With less than a week to go before the deadline for which it was asked to provide feedback to the Seattle Police Department (SPD), the Seattle Community Police Commission (CPC) hosted a virtual town hall event on January 26 to address some of the policy changes that SPD has been considering. 

The CPC is a commission created by the City of Seattle to amplify its community voices during police accountability processes. The SPD is currently proposing more than 100 pages of policy changes — concerning issues like officers’ use of force and how they can police protests. SPD originally set a deadline for comment at January 8, but the CPC pushed SPD to extend that deadline until January 31 — in order to give the CPC more time to host the online forum and engage the community and encourage people to submit recommendations about the policy changes. Members of the community have until January 31 to submit their feedback directly online.

In an online summary of the proposed changes SPD describes changes to its use of force core principles, which only state that officers “will” engage in an action, instead of “should” or “shall” (e.g. “officers will use de-escalation tactics”). In its analysis of the changes, the CPC said that “although SPD committed to re-envisioning public safety together with community, leaving this section effectively unchanged signals that it does not intend to meaningfully alter the way and frequency it uses force on community members.”

The CPC analysis was published in early January, in response to SPD’s proposed changes, which were released in December. In its  analysis, the CPC expressed the commission’s belief that, although the SPD is committed to protecting human life and property and maintaining civil order, it should be protecting human life “explicitly before property and order.” The CPC also believes that officers should be required to “exhaust de-escalation options first, always,” instead of “when safe, under the totality of circumstances, and time and circumstances permit.” The CPC supports changing SPD phrasing from “risk of harm” to “imminent harm” and modifying other defining aspects of when and how officers may act in certain situations.
Many of the CPC’s analyses of the SPD’s proposed policy changes to use of force definitions focus on the unique and instantaneous decisions that should be made by a “reasonable” officer. 

“The policy opens with force reasonableness being judged ‘from the perspective of a reasonable officer,’ emphasizing split-second decisions,” the CPC said in its analysis of use-of-force definitions. “We believe that relying only on an individual’s perspective (which inherently cannot be verified) does not elevate oversight and erodes trust.”

The commission’s analysis states multiple times that there are “unclear,” “misleading,” or “irrelevant” proposed policy changes that could lead to outcomes that “erode trust,” create “a harmful ‘us versus them’ culture,” and leave “a dangerous loophole” for when officers can restrain people via their head or neck. Among other more specific analyses, the CPC believes that numerous definitions are not universally agreed upon — such as which less-lethal tools can cause great bodily harm — and that other uses of force, like intentionally ramming one vehicle into another, using blastballs, or deploying a canine for compliance should be prohibited altogether.

“Almost any interaction with the Seattle Police Department, especially for Black and Brown people, especially for protesters of police brutality, seems to be escalatory,” said Nikkita Oliver, who was a panelist at the virtual event. “And so expecting us to follow some rule that [SPD] doesn’t even follow across the board to everyone, I think that’s problematic because that’s not how the Seattle Police Department acts with all unpermitted marches.”

In regards to de-escalation, the CPC noted that the changes still leave many of the policies “vague,” “subjective,” or with “too low of a bar” for officers’ de-escalation obligations. Taser sparking, “given in a calm and explanatory manner,” is listed second in the section for how officers can gain voluntary compliance through communication, which the CPC believes is “unclear” with regard to “how to draw a line between a warning and threat” and could create loopholes. The CPC also noted that the priority ranking of de-escalation techniques was unclear and questioned whether communication and calming techniques would be given priority before using other techniques on the list, such as Taser warnings.

Additionally, the de-escalation options that are provided in policy “will be guided by the totality of the circumstances with the goal of attaining voluntary compliance,” to which the CPC responded by asserting that the main goal of the officers should be protection of life before compliance. 

In the proposed changes for when officers can or cannot use force in interactions with members of the public, the new policies prohibit some specific actions by officers, such as “intentionally kneeling on the neck of an individual officers are trying to take into custody” and “using tire deflation devices on moving vehicles.” Further, the policy still allows “for officers to use force on restrained individuals, pregnant people, preadolescent children, elderly people, and ‘physically frail or disabled’ people,” as well as for the use of canine bites. In its analysis, the CPC felt that “there are many places where the policy updates do not go far enough to ensure the safety of all individuals who may come into contact with SPD members.” 

“I think it is difficult to discuss policy when the humanity of people seems to be missing from that policy,” said Oliver. “Part of humanizing folks is creating space for truth-telling, one of the four parts of accountability that we talked about. There has been no opportunity for truth-telling where SPD has had to actually listen to what community is saying about our experiences with the Seattle Police Department. In addition to truth-telling, there has to be the process of accounting. Even in the moments tonight, where we’re talking about policies that impact people’s bodies and people’s safety, there is a lot of justification for fear and a lot of justification for assuming that protesters are going to need some sort of crowd control or crowd management. And there’s also no acknowledgement that what the protests this summer are about was police brutality. At the root of this policy discussion is the harm that the police have been causing in communities, not just for a few years, but for hundreds of years.”

Concerning the weapons officers may use while on duty, the CPC’s analysis said that “SPD’s proposed changes would reverse the Crowd Control Weapons Ban passed by the City of Seattle in June”; that “SPD’s proposed changes would undermine Seattle’s democratically enacted Crowd Control Weapons Ban and goes against years of CPC recommendations”; and that “after a summer in which community spoke out against SPD’s use of these weapons, SPD should not be trying to go around City ordinances to increase the size of their arsenal,” which “does not promote community trust.” 

As for when officers can use particular means of force in certain interactions, the CPC identified potential problems with the way SPD categorizes some uses of force. As the proposed policy is written, pointing a firearm at an individual is a Type I use of force, which means it is met with less scrutiny than many other types of force, even though the act of doing so can directly lead to police shootings. 

In the same list of SPD’s published proposed policy changes, investigations into use of force would continue to be done by SPD employees, who have “potential motivations … to find uses of force to be within policy.” The proposed policy also does not “ensure every officer is required to intervene and report all uses of force they witness.”

When reviewing use of force, the CPC analysis says that proposed policy changes are described as “convoluted,” “long,” “difficult to digest,” and that the result “seems far from a timely and transparent accountability process.” The CPC also questions why the Force Review Board’s monthly reports were removed, whether all or solely “serious” violations should be referred to the Force Review Board, and if the police chief’s annual analysis of reported uses of force by SPD should be public. The CPC also states that “use of force on restrained persons should be prohibited, not highly scrutinized.”

“My issue with these policies is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any major change into the investigation aspect for who’s holding SPD accountable,” said Braxton Baker, of the Seattle Group for Police Accountability, who was a panelist at the event. “I think that’s where a lot of this comes into play, because it’s one thing to have policies in place on paper, but what about instances when officers don’t follow policies? What happens when officers don’t follow these rules? Who’s holding them accountable? Who’s investigating them? And it seems to me, looking at the process, that it’s essentially SPD — that it’s the police policing the police.”

Finally, regarding SPD’s procedures for crowd management, intervention, and control, the CPC found that the proposed policies do not adopt the CPC’s recommendations surrounding the City Council’s crowd control weapons ban — the CPC says the proposals “subvert” City Council processes — nor do they allow for time to confer with community and accountability partners.

In direct opposition to CPC recommendation, the proposed policy will allow for the use of “less-lethal” weapons, like blast balls and pepper balls, to be used in crowd dispersal situations. The policy also “does not establish clear, strong, and high standards for issuing an order to disperse or declaring a ‘riot’ and does not require SPD to make documentation of why these orders were issued publicly available. It also does not require an outside review of dispersal orders and any resulting outcomes.” 

“The threshold for when an assembly can be considered unlawful (e.g., violent acts by at least four people) and isolated unlawful behavior (e.g., individual sit-down demonstrators) is too low,” says the CPC analysis. “These isolated incidents can lead to the suppression of First Amendment rights for thousands of people.”

“I think the biggest thing is that the requirement in order to go from lawful assembly to unlawful assembly does not scale,” said Baker. “It just says that once there are violent acts by four or more people, then SPD has the right to announce that it’s an unlawful assembly. Sometimes there are more than 12,000 people out there and so I want to make sure that, in policy, it says that if there’s four people doing unlawful behavior, that not all 12,000 people will have to go home and that it’s not shut down everybody.”

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured Image: A screenshot of Braxton Baker, of the Seattle Group for Police Accountability, speaking at a CPC virtual town hall event.

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