Seattle police should re-evaluate the way officers use so-called blast ball grenades to disperse crowds during events like this year’s May Day protest on Capitol Hill, according to a report from the Seattle’s police oversight office. Meanwhile, excessive use of force allegations against officers were found to be without grounds, according to the Office of Professional Accountability report.
Police deployed at least 48 blast balls during its response to this year’s May Day Anti-Capitalist March turned “riot,” which largely took place on Capitol Hill. The report from Seattle’s OPA was unable to determine if officers violated department guidelines, but investigators raised concerns about blast balls that were thrown over the heads of protestors and detonations that happened in close proximity to people who posed no threat.
Because the initial detonation of a blast-ball separates a hard metal fuse device from its rubber base, there is a possibility of the metal fuse acting as shrapnel and causing serious injury to someone in close proximity when it separates. In addition, deployment of blast-balls at the feet of people or into a crowd can cause burns from the second and larger detonation, as well as blunt force trauma from the rubber base as the flash powder inside explodes and the two halves of the base fly apart.
“The evidence from May Day 2015 indicates that, while highly effective in getting people to move, the ball-blasts create fear and panic when detonated,” the report concludes.
The report comes in response to five complaints filed against officers for excessive use of force during the May 1st demonstration. Ultimately, the OPA did not uphold the allegations, but included seven recommendations on how SPD could better handle similar situations.
In a letter to SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole, OPA director Pierce Murphy said SPD should also limit its reliance on outside law enforcement agencies to manage protests as they are not bound by the same use of force policies as Seattle police. Seven outside police agencies provided some 80 officers to assist SPD on May 1st, many on bicycles. Murphy’s other recommendations to SPD included:
- Make immediate changes to how blast balls are tracked and inventoried
- Review policies and training surrounding less lethal projectiles to reduce the chances of causing serious bodily injury
- Continue to improve documenting use of force incidents
- Make names and/or serial numbers of officers “large and highly visible” on the front and back of outer most garments
- Expand approaches to demonstrations and crowd control beyond military-style tactics
“The department is working closely with a panel of national crowd management experts, including the Center for Policing Equity, to examine all demonstrations since last fall,” SPD posted in response to the report. “These experts have concluded their document review and interviews of officers, and will be returning to Seattle to hold meetings capturing the viewpoints of community stakeholders.”
In September, the monitor tasked with overseeing SPD’s federally mandated reforms has found the department is failing to adequately investigate mid-level use of force incidents, like those involving pepper spray, tasers, and blast balls. Documenting and investigating use-of-force incidents was identified by the DOJ as a major problem area within SPD back in 2012. Overall, the monitor found SPD was making encouraging progress towards reforming its history of overly aggressive policing tactics.