by Paul Faruq Kiefer
(This article was previously published at PubliCola and has been reprinted with permission.)
Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold introduced the latest version of legislation intended to restrict the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) use of so-called “less-lethal weapons” against demonstrators during a Public Safety Committee meeting on Tuesday, June 22, more than a year after the council first began its efforts to limit SPD’s crowd control arsenal. The proposal would restrict the use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers, and pepper spray by SPD officers responding to protests and outright ban five other less-lethal weapons, including blast balls.
If passed, the proposed legislation would replace an ordinance the council passed in June 2020, which SPD never implemented, that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls, and other less-lethal weapons for crowd control.
Shortly after the ordinance passed, U.S. District Court Judge James Robart — who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the City of Seattle known as the consent decree — issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The order came in response to a warning from the U.S. Department of Justice that any law preventing officers from using less-lethal weapons against crowds might make officers turn to more serious uses of force, including hitting protesters with batons.
In the aftermath of Judge Robart’s restraining order, city councilmembers turned to Seattle’s police oversight bodies — the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Community Police Commission (CPC) — and the team appointed by the federal court to monitor the City’s compliance with federal court orders to rework the legislation.
The updated bill that Herbold introduced on Tuesday reflects the latest round of feedback from the federal monitoring team, who began their review of the draft legislation in February. In their recommendations to the council, the monitoring team emphasized that SPD officers need to be able to target small groups of rioters in largely peaceful crowds, and that SPD will need additional time to adjust to any new restrictions on less-lethal weapons.
In its current form, the bill would ban officers from using “disorientation devices” like blast balls or ultrasonic cannons under any circumstances, with the exception of flash-bang grenades, which would still be available to SWAT teams. It would also allow officers to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds of protesters, but only in response to a “violent public disturbance” — a legal term to describe violence committed by a group of 12 or more people.
Because the bill would require SPD to jump through new hoops to use tear gas for crowd control, it may align with recommendations by Seattle’s oversight agencies in August 2020 that the department only use the weapon “if at all, in a manner that keeps faith with the public trust.” Like the original ordinance it would replace, the proposal would also allow people to sue the City if SPD uses less-lethal weapons against nonviolent demonstrators.
In her comments to her colleagues on Tuesday, Herbold argued that the council should avoid fighting against the revisions made to appease the federal court. “We could be testing the patience of the court by bringing forward a bill that undoes the work they’ve done since February,” she said.
The Public Safety Committee won’t vote on the latest version of the bill until next month. If the committee approves of the bill, it will need to receive the approval of the federal monitoring team and the DOJ before the full council can pass it into law. In the meantime, SPD’s latest revisions to its policy manual included no new restrictions for its crowd control arsenal.
Paul Faruq 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. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.
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