Photo depicting protestors in Seattle holding up smartphones to film while Seattle police use flash bangs and pepper spray to disperse them.

Unreleased Investigation Sheds Light on Police Use of Tear Gas on Protesters in 2020

Report reveals officers who made decisions to permit police tear gas use were treated only as witnesses by OPA.

by Carolyn Bick

The Emerald’s Watchdragon reporting seeks to increase accountability within our city’s institutions through in-depth investigative journalism.


The Emerald has obtained documents that reveal new information regarding one of the two open 2020 protests-related investigations into former Seattle Police Department (SPD) Chief Carmen Best. The documents the Emerald obtained are draft reports that specifically regard the investigation into the use of tear gas on protesters on June 7, 2020, into the early hours of June 8, 2020. The incident ties into the abandonment of the East Precinct on June 8, 2020.

While these documents are technically drafts of a forthcoming report by the Seabold Group — the outside agency the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) contracted to investigate the two cases involving Best — they appear to highlight several key points, based on the investigative interview snippets contained within. Based on the file names of the documents the Emerald received, Seabold submitted its first draft report on Oct. 26, 2022, and an amended draft report on Jan. 4, 2023. The Emerald will be focusing on the most recent version of the draft report, dated Jan. 4, 2023. Neither draft report contains conclusions.

Summary

According to the draft report, between May 31, 2020, and June 5, 2020, Best had temporarily given officers full-scale authorization to use tear gas (also known as CS gas). This authorization was replaced on June 5, when Best limited its use, but the draft report appears to show that Best was not solely responsible for the use of tear gas when it was deployed two days later, during the June 7–8 protest.

The report reveals that SPD Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey believed himself to be acting on authority from Best, per a conversation in which Best delegated protest response authority to him, prior to the June 7 protest. Mahaffey also cited delegated authority when OPA investigators interviewed him about the East Precinct abandonment in 2020.

However, Seabold’s report also shows that Mahaffey did not receive an explicit directive from Best to act as her designee in relation to the order limiting the use of tear gas. Based on what Mahaffey told the Seabold investigator, because he was the operations commander for the event in question, it appears Mahaffey considered himself to have the authority to order or allow police to use tear gas on protesters.

The document also reveals that now-former SPD Capt. Matthew Allen, who was on scene at the protests, appears to have called for police to use tear gas with the understanding that he had explicit permission from Mahaffey. Allen states there was a report of someone with a gun in the crowd — a statement Mahaffey echoes, stating there were “several” such reports, but additional sightings are not documented in Seabold’s draft. A footnote in the draft cites a report of a person with a gun, which had been documented about two hours prior to Allen’s order allowing police to use tear gas. The report does not cite any other specific reports of a person with a gun. 

Though there had been a shooting earlier in the evening of June 7, an internal SPD email the Emerald has separately obtained shows that by just after 9 p.m., SPD deemed it unrelated to the protests and that the police had already apprehended the person responsible.

Allen said in a November 2020 OPA interview that Mahaffey told him “to keep our officers safe and defend the East Precinct. He told me if things turn violent and there is a life safety need to use CS then I was authorized to do so.”

Following that call, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) officers made individual decisions to use the gas on protesters, according to the documents the Emerald obtained.

The documents regarding the investigation cite attachments — such as Mahaffey’s November 2020 interview, his later interview with the Seabold investigator, other officer interviews the OPA conducted in 2020, and several other pieces of documentation.

The Emerald asked SPD’s public disclosure unit twice for the attached records, on May 12 and May 15, but SPD’s public disclosure team has not provided the documents, though they were directly attached to the original draft reports, per footnote notations throughout. Instead, SPD told the Emerald on May 15 that it would have to file a new records request for them. The Emerald will address this claim later in this story.

The Emerald asked SPD’s communications unit on May 18 whether there were any other protest-linked sightings of firearms during the June 7–8, 2020, protest, in addition to the sighting two hours prior to Allen permitting officers to use tear gas. It also asked about the internal email. SPD’s communications team responded on the morning of May 19, telling the Emerald, “Unfortunately your questions are not ones that can be answered without a fair amount of time consuming investigation of our own. Due to the amount of events happening as well as being down staff we just don’t have the time to do this type of research. 

“Please feel free to turn [sic] a Public Disclosure request to review documents that may answer your questions,” the email ends.

As of this writing, the OPA has not publicly updated anything about this case since August 2020, per the department’s complaint tracker.

Screenshot depicting the OPA's complaint tracker for case number "2020OPA-0345" with text that reads, "Case Status: The complaint has been classified and either involves an investigation, action by the employee's supervisor, or a combination of the two. The Complaint Tracker will be updated as the case develops. Date: 2020-08-06."
Screenshot of the OPA’s Complaint Tracker while looking up case number 2020OPA-0345. The status of the case has not been updated since August 2020.

Neither the OPA nor Seabold responded to the Emerald’s requests for comment. The Emerald sent the OPA and Seabold questions on the afternoon of May 18 and followed up with the OPA again on May 22. In its communications with the Emerald for the story about the Seabold Group’s contract, published earlier this month, the OPA had asked the Emerald to give a two-day grace period for questions, which the Emerald provided, as asked, for this story. 

Due to the depth of this story, the Emerald has broken the article into sections.