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New report tries to answer what went wrong during Seattle Police’s response to 2020 Black Lives Matter protests — and what to do about it

Future Seattle protests could meet a larger, more technologically prepared police force with new directives including encouraging certain officers to speak their minds — if what the cops have to say doesn’t further inflame tensions.

The first report has been released from the city’s official review of public safety implications from last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and the Seattle Police Department’s flawed response to the unrest.

The recommendations from the panel of SPD officials and community representatives convened for the effort recommends a major seachange for SPD’s strategy for policing protests to “focus more explicitly and comprehensively on the facilitation of peaceful assembly and ensuring the safety of protestors.”

“The focus and mindset of SPD officers deployed to assist in crowd events should move away from ‘crowd management,’ ‘crowd control,’ and ‘law enforcement’ to ‘facilitation of speech’ and ‘crowd protection and safety,'” the Office of Inspector General for Public Safety’s “Sentinel Event Review of Police Response to 2020 Protests in Seattle” report reads.

Its findings include the obvious. Many of SPD’s responses and tactics didn’t work and made things worse. “SPD responded to the 2020 protests with skills, strategies, and tactics developed over many decades of facilitating thousands of protests, enhanced by eight years of Consent Decree reform efforts,” the report’s introduction reads. “Those tactics not only proved inadequate for the protests of the summer of 2020… they contributed to escalation of civil unrest and violence.”

But as the first report — the OIG process breaks down the 2020 protest periods into “waves” with the first document covering the key first days as crowds swelled into the thousands in downtown Seattle before spreading onto Capitol Hill — is taken up by the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety and Human Services committee next Tuesday, the city will also be confronted with findings and recommendations from the panel for increasing the number of officers part of First Amendment responses, and facilitating more direct, supportive dialogue with protesters on the street while improving SPD technology for encrypted, behind the scenes communication about demonstrator activities, and police maneuverings.

“The training should also ensure that officers from multiple departments can communicate in a secure and effective fashion, potentially taking advantage of new technologies to permit this even in the challenging environment of a large protest,” the panel report reads. “SPD’s Ops Center (SPOC) would have benefitted from an encrypted standardized alert messaging system (e.g., WhatsApp, Yammer, or other technology) that could replace radio communication during crowd facilitation events.”

The panel also recommends increased use of “CCTV” and video surveillance to prevent property destruction.

The report released Thursday in advance of next week’s council committee meeting covers “Wave 1” — the first days of protests from May 29th to June 1st in downtown and on Capitol Hill following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. CHS reported on the one-year mark and a look back at those days before the formation of the CHOP protest zone here. Reports covering subsequent waves are coming:

• Wave 1 (May 29 – June 1), the focus of this Report, comprises the period from the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis to the first set of demonstrations in Seattle, mainly in Downtown Seattle.
• Wave 2 (June 2 – June 7) includes events that occurred before the leaving of the East Precinct by SPD. During this period, the main demonstrations and confrontations shifted from Downtown to the East Precinct.
• Wave 3 (June 8 – July 2) includes events that occurred during the existence of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) and Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ).
• Wave 4 (July 3 – Oct 6) includes events after the East Precinct was reestablished.
• Wave 5 (Oct 6 – End of 2020) includes events after the creation by SPD Interim Chief of Police Adrian Diaz of the Community Response Group, tasked specifically with responding to demonstrations, among other duties.

The first report sets the foundation for the subsequent waves with the panel agreeing that much larger factors of racism and police violence in communities of color were at the core of the Seattle protests. “Police misconduct and systemic and institutional racism within everyday encounters provided the original stimulus for demonstrations and set the identity of the demonstrations, which were already defined by a perception of police illegitimacy,” the report reads.

That core was further fueled by tensions and limitations around the COVID-19 pandemic and the growth of social media, the panel concluded.

The panel also identified seven key incidents that raised tensions and led to increased violence and property damage including police pepper spraying a child during its response on May 30th, the fire attack on police vehicles and theft of patrol rifles, and the “pink umbrella incident” that led to an an explosive clash between police and protesters at 11th and Pine.

1. A group of individuals who traveled through the International District on May 29, vandalizing buildings without a meaningful response from SPD;
2. The escalation of widespread protests to violence and property damage on May 30, particularly in the downtown area;
3. A deployment of Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) spray (i.e., “pepper spray”) by SPD that hit a child on the afternoon of May 30;

4. The incineration of a group of SPD vehicles parked near Westlake Park on the late afternoon of
May 30, and the theft of three SPD rifles from one of the vehicles;
5. Two arrests of individuals on the night of May 30 in which an SPD officer appeared to place his knee on the head and neck of the individuals being arrested;
6. The arrest of two people on May 31 by an SPD bicycle squad assigned to facilitate a demonstration in Downtown Seattle; and
7. The “pink umbrella” Incident, a confrontation between SPD and community protesters that resulted in widespread deployment of CS gas (i.e., “tear gas”) and other less-lethal munitions in the neighborhood surrounding the SPD East Precinct Building on the night of June 1.

Some of the report’s findings include determinations that SPD should have acted sooner and at a larger scale. A May 29th incident in the International District is cited as an early accelerant for the clashes to come that SPD should have been more prepared for, the panel writes:

As the organized protests dissipated, a group of (mostly white) young protesters, filmed by an independent Seattle filmographer, destroyed numerous street fronts of commercial businesses along a 1.4 mile stretch of the International District. SPD did not engage with the group during this 45-minute period as it destroyed storefronts in a predominantly Asian community.

“The Incident concerned both SPD and community members, as the group appeared well organized and orchestrated, wearing clothes that hid their identity, tearing down security cameras, and methodically moving from one building to the next,” the panel’s conclusion reads. “In addition, the lack of a visible SPD response to the group raised questions from skeptical Panelists about whether SPD would have responded more harshly to vandalism in a wealthier neighborhood by Black, Indigenous, or other People of Color.”

The panel also concluded that it would have been helpful for police to offer “public condemnation of the death of George Floyd” —

Most Panelists did not consider public condemnation of the death of George Floyd to be an act that would “ridicule the Department, its employees or other law enforcement agencies.” The Panel felt that “taking a knee” or standing publicly against police brutality, as Mayor Durkan, Chief Best and other SPD leaders stated, was a show of support for fair and just policing, and something SPD officers should do without reservation. In fact, the willingness of SPD officers to acknowledge the will of the crowd might have been viewed as an important co-operative perspective to address the crowd’s anti-police frustration. However, SPD officers at “street level” during the days reviewed by the Panel were not given express guidance on this point.

“Without clear guidance from SPD leadership on why these protests were different, and knowing they were likely being recorded by hundreds of cell phones at all times during the protests, officers overwhelmingly chose to follow the existing policy of content neutrality rather than share their feelings of support for the protesters’ activities,” the report reads. “The Panel’s judgment was that in these early days of the protests, many in the crowd seemed to interpret the officers’ silence as an alignment with, or at least a refusal to refute, the police brutality that was the source of the protest. As a result, the silence of officers likely escalated tensions overall.”

And the SPD officers who did talk with protesters? Many of them did more harm than good:

SPD acknowledges and accepts this responsibility, and it is an existing policy that “any time employees represent [SPD] or identify themselves as police officers or Department employees, they will not use profanity directed as an insult or any language that is derogatory, contemptuous, or disrespectful toward any person,”25 regardless of the behavior that a community member is exhibiting. Despite this, Panelists witnessed numerous instances in which this policy was not followed.

The report includes analysis from Professor Clifford Stott, an expert in crowd psychology and “policing in the global arena.”

The panel behind the 110-page report included Lisa Judge, head of the Inspector General’s office, and community representatives including Dona Moodie, Executive Director, Capitol Hill EcoDistrict and owner of Marjorie restaurant at 14th and Union, Maurice Washington, social activist and co-founder United Family, Friends and Neighbors, and Sophia Benalfew, Executive Director, Ethiopian Community in Seattle.

Representatives from SPD included Lt. John Brooks, and Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey. CHS reported on Mahaffey’s role in the decision to abandon the East Precinct, here.

“Principles” of the OIG panel process included “no assignation of individual blame,” the report notes.

In her letter introducing the report, Inspector General Judge says the report should set the groundwork for changes in laws and policies around SPD and the city’s response to future protests.

“I hope this collective body of work leads to a fuller understanding of what took place last summer—and a deeper understanding of how we can collectively move forward,” Judge writes.


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2 months ago

“Smartphones and both open-source and encrypted social media, augmented by traditional media sources, may have been a factor in inflaming tensions and anti-police emotions amount protestors.”

So they’re saying that catching police abuses on camera and not the police abusing people was the contributing factor in anti-police sentiment? Wow.

How about the asymmetrical responses by SPD that led to most of the violence?
And nothing about the multiple false statements made by SPD that in an attempt to justify their violence? (Fake shake downs, Molotov prayer candle, “frozen” water bottles, missed the peddle injuries etc.)

It’s almost like SPD isn’t honest when investigating themselves (le gasp!)

2 months ago

I fear this is all predicated on baseline assumptions that may not exist, one being the cooperation of the infiltrated, ill-trained, etc. rank and file. You should hear them talking among themselves when they think no one is within earshot.

C Doom
C Doom
1 month ago

Why is Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey part of the review process?

Mahaffey’s decision to abandon Capitol Hill is what unleashed the CHAZ/CHOP zone, and its lawlessness, primarily out-of-town people coming here to start problems and murders, onto Seattle. He is an incompetent that should already be fired.

Instead he gets to be on the committee, no doubt to help rewrite history.

C Doom
C Doom
1 month ago

As for the suggestion to have more cops walking beats in Seattle … Guys, have you taken a look at what you employ now in SPD? The Punisher-tat wearing, Trump supporting, violent right wing goon of modern-day SPD?

What possible good will come out of those guys walking up Broadway Ave, other than to continue to antagonize residents with their presence?

You know what I have yet to hear out of SPD? An apology. A g-d damned apology to Capitol Hill for the problems they helped cause last summer – the days of teargas and lying about it, the days of abandoning their jobs, the days of pouring gas on an already lit fire, all of it.

Instead that union president of theirs regularly goes on right wing radio and continues to bash Seattle and by extension Capitol Hill. Mike Solan can go to hell. Under his leadership, SPD showed its utter contempt for Capitol Hill.

Not even an I’m sorry.

SPD membership is so far removed from actual Capitol Hill, I think the only answer to them is a wholesale cleaning house. Seattle needs to tear up its contract with SPOG and hire fresh police from national recruiting effort – hire people capable of actually doing their jobs without making the problem worse, hire people without Mike Solan’s violent right wing ideology as part of their base character. 70% of SPD supported Solan!

SPD is rotten to the core. It needs to be disbanded and replaced.

1 month ago
Reply to  C Doom

Generalize much?

L Root
L Root
1 month ago

“As the organized protests dissipated, a group of (mostly white) young protesters, filmed by an independent Seattle filmographer, destroyed numerous street fronts of commercial businesses along a 1.4 mile stretch of the International District. SPD did not engage with the group during this 45-minute period as it destroyed storefronts in a predominantly Asian community…..
In addition, the lack of a visible SPD response to the group raised questions from skeptical Panelists about whether SPD would have responded more harshly to vandalism in a wealthier neighborhood by Black, Indigenous, or other People of Color.”

Oh please, Asian businesses have routinely been targeted by Black mobs while the police died nothing. And have they forgotten Madi Gras riots?
An incident that got too little attention.