Mayor Jenny Durkan did a victory lap on national media yesterday declaring Seattle free of federal agents, but local residents noted that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) continued to aggressively deploy the same weapons and tactics she decried from federal police. In fact, the City of Seattle is being sued for it.

Videos from protests this weekend showed SPD officers indiscriminately targeting crowds of protesters with blast balls, pepper spray canisters, and rubber bullets in violation of a restraining order from a federal judge that banned exactly this kind of indiscriminate use of chemical weapons and rubber bullets.

The Seattle City Council attempted to ban chemical weapons outright, but the Durkan administration went to court to temporarily block the ban. With a legal respite and implied permission from the Mayor, police seemed to use their weapons with vengeance and targeted people trying to render medical aid and those documenting the protests as journalists or legal observers. Mayor Durkan forgot to mention this on MSNBC and CNN.

Although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had made the Mayor promises before and broke them–triggering a strongly-worded letter–Durkan said she believed assurances were for real this time. In a press release, Mayor Durkan said she had “received confirmation that the Department of Homeland Security’s Border Patrol Tactical Unit has demobilized and left the Seattle area.”

The Mayor correctly identified that police using excessive force and strong-arm tactics escalates situations and increase violence. She just didn’t apply that analysis to her own police force. Troublingly, she sought to hang all accountability for policing decisions on Police Chief Carmen Best rather than herself.

“The president’s actions to target and ‘dominate’ Democratic cities through the use of federal forces is chilling. It has increased violence in Portland, Seattle and other cities across the country, which was what the president intended,” Mayor Durkan said in a statement. “Policing decisions in Seattle should be made by Chief Best–not Donald Trump, and we can rest assured that they will be. We will continue to heed this moment in history and to work with the community to make systemic and generational changes to make Seattle more just.”

The Mayor’s double standard

On CNN, Mayor Durkan argued federal police escalating violence in Portland and inciting larger protests proved that strategy didn’t work.

“We’ve seen that in Portland. It has proven the case the federal agents presence there has escalated things to the point where thousands of people turned out against that action,” Mayor Durkan said. “I think that tells all we need to know about whether they made it better or whether they made it worse.”

The Mayor didn’t apply that same standard to SPD, which had escalated violence and incited larger protests for two months running. Those protests peaked at 60,000 and are building strength again as SPD cracks down once more.

Instead of linking growing and escalating protests with counterproductive policing tactics, Mayor Durkan and Chief Best have consistently responded with more of the same, and they continue to put the blame on the protesters for violence.

Yet again this weekend the video evidence tells a different story. The vast majority of videos show SPD firing on nonviolent people, which seem to compose 99% of protesters. As with Portland, a “wall of moms” formed seeking to defuse the situation and SPD fired anyway. SPD targeted not only these would-be peacekeepers, but also legal observers (clearly marked in green hats), journalists, and medics, as both witness testimony and videos attest.

While SPD did face a real improvised explosive device this weekend, they responded disproportionately. They also continue to damage trust by spreading misinformation in previous weeks, such as the infamous explosive that turned out to be shattered candle example.

SPD violating federal injunction on crowd control weapons

SPD actions have evoked legal action. A suit filed by Black Lives Matter King County-Seattle marks the third recent attempt to limit SPD’s weaponry and targeting of peaceful protesters. The Seattle Times reported the suit include two dozen sworn declarations of injuries inflicted by Seattle police, included gruesome rubber bullet contusions and shrapnel lacerations from blast balls:

“The City of Seattle has willfully and brazenly violated the preliminary injunction,” wrote lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Seattle and the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie, representing Black Lives Matter-Seattle King County, which had sought the injunction last month after protesters clashed violently with police during mostly peaceful protests calling attention to racism and police brutality.

The motion was accompanied by 24 sworn declarations describing in “horrific detail” the injuries inflicted by police officers on protesters, legal observers and journalists.

The motion asks for additional safeguards to be put in place to prevent police from using blast balls, tear gas, projectile weapons, batons or other less-than-lethal weapons indiscriminately, and asks the court to order police particularly to leave journalists, medics and legal observers alone. It also asks for the city to pay its attorney and court fees.

Mike Carter, Daniel Beekman, and Lewis Kalb, The Seattle Times

In Seattle City Council’s Monday briefing, several members condemned excessive force and indiscriminate use of banned weapons. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said the continued use of tear gas, pepper balls, and mace–all major lung irritants–on people would make them more susceptible to Covid-19 and worsen the pandemic, as she also emphasized when the council passed its chemical weapons ban.

Councilmember Tammy Morales accused the Durkan administration of continuing to play “word games” rather than grappling with the issue.

“I will say it was really disturbing to see our police department again using crowd control weapons in ways that were blatantly indiscriminate,” Morales said. “This council has been pretty clear in our interest in seeing the end of these kind of tools and weapons used against our community it doesn’t build trust to play semantic games and promise community you won’t use tear gas knowing full well officers will be geared up with pepper spray. I believe this is a cynical attempt to evade responsibility for the actions we are asking to end and the responsibility to keep our community safe and frankly, the community sees through those word games.”

However, as The Stranger’s Nathalie Graham pointed out, these condemnations are starting to feel like a time loop; SPD remains defiantly violent.

Today, the Council’s budget committee continues to look at cutting SPD’s budget, and the hundreds of public comments were predominately supportive. Led by Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now, protesters have demanded a 50% cut to SPD’s budget to fund community-based health and public safety. While the Mayor has portrayed this demand as naive, impossible, and dangerous, it’s increasingly clear there may be no other way to rein in an out of control police department operating with violent impunity.

The featured image is by Ethan Campbell.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. The demonstrations would have far more positive impact with the general public if they would stop the window-breaking and other violence. That only feeds the repression coming from Trumpworld.

    It’s embarrassing, shameful really, to have that stuff continue while we’re burying one of America’s greatest advocates of non-violence. What a rebuke to the legacy of John Robert Lewis.

      • Huh? John Lewis’ “Good Trouble” never ever included acts of violence against store windows or public authorities. I stand by my comment. The true advocates for social change need to separate themselves from the violent attackers, separate in both time and location. Stop feeding into the forces of darkness emanating from Trumpworld.

  2. “it’s increasingly clear there may be no other way to rein in an out of control police department operating with violent impunity”

    I support the overall goal of reining in the SPD, but I’m on the mayor’s side here – I don’t see a 50% defunding having much effect towards this goal, while having significant potential negative externalities (i.e. spike in crime).

    Firstly, defunding doesn’t address the root issues — such as the union/SPOG having too much power, lack of training, accountability issues, etc. Reducing the overall number of officers may have some effect, but the officers who remain aren’t going to be any better than the current ones.

    Most importantly, I haven’t seen any concrete plans on what *exactly* we’ll be replacing the police with – mostly vague references to “social workers” and “community-based public safety alternatives”. These alternatives, once agreed upon, also almost certainly wouldn’t be able to spin up in a matter of weeks. I’m optimistic that *some* degree of divestment can be beneficial, but overall very skeptical given that even the most progressive societies in the world (i.e. Scandinavia) rely on police to some extent.

    As an urbanist, I support approaching public safety the way we do transportation. In a similar manner, we have an inequitable and harmful system with a racist legacy (roads and highways). We push for alternatives (bike lanes, bus lanes, Link, etc), and new tax levies and TBDs to fund them – which get built over the course of years to decades. Over time, people switch to these alternatives, and funding (for roadways & maintenance) gradually becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of our overall transportation funding.

    Defunding police by 50%, in my analogy above, would be analogous to getting rid of 50% of our roads overnight. I do notice that you’ve advocated seriously for demolishing I-5, but I hope you’d at least support waiting at least a *few* years for viable alternatives to be built out first, instead of trying to do it today.

    • Hi Ed, Thanks for your comment. I think that’s a misrepresentation to say there is no plan. The defund and reinvest plan is centered on increasing public safety.

      First we have to keep in mind that for some marginalized populations–such as young Black men and indigenous folks–police are among the biggest threat to their safety and health. We have to acknowledge our existing system isn’t providing public safety in anything approaching an equitable fashion.

      The root issues you mention are related to police accountability, but the Defund movement is also looking deeper to how do we tackle the issues that we call police for in the first place, such as homelessness, domestic violence, theft, etc. I think the Defund 50% campaign is designed to force a reckoning with SPOG. You’ve rightly identified they have too much power and they’ve built that power by always delivering more money and benefits to their membership.

      They’ve had 8 years of the Consent Decree plus 66 days of protests to change their ways but they’re only become more defensive and flaunting of civilian authority. SPOG President Mike Solan asked for the Federal police to come to Seattle to terrorize protesters like they did in Portland. This is where we are at. The police guild stands for more violence and immunity from consequence, and offering them more money for training doesn’t get at that root issue. Moreover, the evidence suggest police bias training doesn’t work and may backfire: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/implicit-bias-training-doesnt-actually-change-police-behavior_n_5ee28fc3c5b60b32f010ed48

      The first part of the transition away from police-centered public safety is taking 911 outside of SPD, and that will facilitate other agencies to respond to situations where they are better suited rather than an officer with a gun. About 10% of calls actually involve violent crime so it could be the majority of calls won’t even go through SPD. Fewer emergency calls to SPD will allow less staff to still do the job. Remember even after their budget is cut in half, SPD will remain among the top funded agencies in the city (with ample resources to investigate violent crimes.) That’s because their budget is so bloated and out of control right now. It’s roughly 30% of the general fund and includes $30 million in planned overtime.

      The plan also relies heavily on community-based organizations to pick up the slack including those offering restorative justice models rather than punitive. This is important because one of the major flaws and drawbacks of our existing system is high recidivism rates. Our country incarcerates millions of people but prisons mostly tend to harden people into a life of crime because of the stigma and barriers to housing and employment that we mark them with even after they do their time and pay their debt to society. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow did an excellent job of laying out this dynamic. The United States in outlier on this front. Scandinavia may have cops, but their incarceration rate is drastically lower (10 times lower).

      Switching focus to restorative justice and upstream solutions may seem like a big leap of faith. However, supportive housing for homeless people, social housing for low-income people, greater mental health resources, and affordable health care and child care will tackle the root causes. Our wack-a-mole approach to homelessness and mental health doesn’t do that, so we end up spending $400 million per year on police with not much to show for it. The exact programs you seek will be hashed out later on down the line, and Decriminalize Seattle and others have advocated for the use of participatory budgeting so that marginalized communities get a stronger say in how their neighborhoods are policed and provided social services.

      We don’t have fine-grained detail yet, but I’m very comfortable saying the roadmap laid out is better than the status quo.

      As to your roads analogy, I think the similarity is that people predict doom and gloom when a highway closes, and typically traffic is not as bad as they predicted, such as in the failure of “ViaDoom” to arrived during Alaskan Way Viaduct closure. People will say there’s no plan, even as our remove I-5 articles have talked about a surface boulevard, bike routes, light rail, high speed rail in the ROW, shifting freight to 405, and denser land use patterns. https://www.theurbanist.org/2016/10/31/remove-i-5/

      • Thanks for the well thought out response. I definitely agree with most of what you are saying, and share your vision of where we want to be.

        I do want to point out that decreasing incarceration rates and recidivism is mostly outside the realm of policing. There are many proven ways of accomplishing this, but they all fall on the legal and justice system — changing sentencing laws, decriminalizing drugs and petty offenses, and providing a prison system that focuses on rehabilitation instead of punishment (a la Norway). These are things that we should be advocating for outside the scope of any “defund the police” plan.

        I think our biggest disagreement is on when and how to achieve this vision. I understand the desire for quick results — but it will take time to iron out the details, and it will take a much longer time (likely years) to ramp up the agencies and community organizations which will pick up the slack. As such, I find it incredibly irresponsible to be advocating for 50% cuts *that take effect right now*. I believe Durkan’s compromise proposal (15% cut right now, and transferring 911 dispatch) is a more cautious approach which will give time for the other agencies and community organizations to hire staff and ramp up; we can always make further cuts down the line.

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