Tuesday, March 2, 2021
March 2, 2021

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Seattle’s police watchdog agency finds ‘multiple’ offenses in officers’ response to racial justice protests

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Seattle police used improper force when officers separately hurled a tear-gas canister at a TV news crew and blast balls that injured two people during demonstrations against racial injustice on Capitol Hill last June, the city’s police watchdog announced Friday.

And in another seminal moment of the George Floyd protests in Seattle last summer — when an officer in riot gear, standing in a police line near the department’s East Precinct, seized a protester’s pink umbrella, sparking an eruption of tear gas, flash-bang devices and pepper spray that sent scores of protesters running for cover — a police commander and other officers overstepped their authority, according to the city’s Office of Police Accountability.

The OPA cleared two bicycle officers who were captured on video punching one demonstrator and using a restraint on another while making arrests during the demonstrations. The group also found the officers acted according to policy, but recommended the department amend its guidelines so as not to escalate potentially volatile situations.

The high-profile cases are among the 22 internal investigations recently completed amid thousands of alleged officer-misconduct complaints fielded by the city’s civilian-led police watchdog over Seattle police response to demonstrations last summer.

The city’s Community Police Commission said in a statement Friday the latest OPA findings “demonstrate what the community already knows.”

“There are systemic problems with the manner in which protests are policed in Seattle,” the CPC’s statement added. “After months of abuse, the community no longer trusts the Seattle Police Department to properly use crowd-control weapons like tear gas and blast balls during protests.”

The police response to protests, during which hundreds of officers clad in riot gear clashed with demonstrators, drew widespread criticism from activists, civil rights groups and city council members and prompted multiple investigations, legal claims and lawsuits.

One federal judge found the department in contempt of an earlier order prohibiting officers from using force against nonviolent protesters, while a second judge continues to oversee reforms called for in an eight-year-old settlement agreement with the Department of Justice over findings that SPD officers routinely used excessive force during arrests.

Meantime, the City Council has expressed support for significant cuts to the department’s budget in reaction to police response to this summer’s protests, spurring police Chief Carmen Best to retire in August.

The OPA announced its latest slew of case outcomes in a statement Friday, with several findings leading the agency’s civilian director, Andrew Myerberg, to make “multiple sustained findings against officers and recommend four policy changes where the issues were more systemic in nature.”

In all, the OPA sustained misconduct allegations or policy violations in five of the 22 cases. Only one officer so far has been disciplined — with a written reprimand, according to records posted online to the OPA’s Demonstration Complaint Dashboard.

Mandatory due process hearings have yet to take place for the cited officers, and no discipline has been imposed in those cases, Detective Patrick Michaud, a department spokesman, said Friday.

Interim Chief Adrian Diaz “will review all of the (policy) recommendations and make a decision in the future about how he would like to proceed,” Michaud added in an email.

In its announcement and a video posted to YouTube, the OPA highlighted three incidents that occurred in or near Cal Anderson Park amid protests in early June, during which officers deployed tear gas or blast balls that struck people. All three cases led to sustained findings of improper use of force.

In one case, Clayton Yorton, 51, who was homeless, was lying in the park on June 1 when he was struck in the head and chest by a blast ball, which left his right ear bleeding.

In another case on the night of June 1, NBC News correspondent Jo Ling Kent was reporting live from the park when a tear-gas canister struck her on the left arm and exploded, damaging the sleeve of her jacket.

In both incidents — captured on video and shared widely, sparking multiple complaints — investigators found officers deployed the crowd-management devices blindly and against policy and their training.

In a third case, an officer deployed four blast balls in quick succession during demonstrations on June 8, with the final one striking a woman in the chest. Volunteers at a nearby medic tent performed three rounds of CPR on the woman after she fell in and out of consciousness. She was later treated at Harborview Medical Center.

The officer, who generally defended his actions as necessary to help disperse an assaultive and rowdy crowd, told investigators “he did not remember” where he threw the fourth “blast ball or specifically why,” according to a summary. The officer also told investigators he didn’t seek medical attention for the woman “because he did not know that she had been hit by a blast ball.”

The OPA determined the officer’s last blast ball violated policy because he threw it overhanded and at the woman, who wasn’t armed or throwing objects at officers.

The OPA did not reach an opinion as to the extent of injuries caused by the blast ball, noting hospital records indicate the woman was suffering from “acute alcohol intoxication” at the time.

In a separate case, OPA investigators also sustained an allegation of unprofessional conduct against an officer who threatened to give a man on a bicycle a ticket on June 8 after the cyclist questioned why a SWAT team and other police personnel were using public school property as a staging ground.

Regarding the “pink umbrella” incident June 1, the OPA sustained two policy violations against the incident commander. The review didn’t substantiate police explanations that the umbrella posed a threat to officers, or that it could have concealed illegal activity. Police contentions that demonstrators were throwing objects and that the department had learned of unspecified threats to burn down the East Precinct also didn’t justify the widespread crowd dispersal at the time, the investigation found.

The “weight of the evidence shows that the large majority of the crowd was not acting violently at the time the officers deployed OC (pepper spray), and shortly after, blast balls and CS (tear) gas,” the OPA found.

Since late May, after demonstrations emerged in Seattle and other U.S. cities over Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, the accountability office has received more than 19,000 calls, emails and other contact about Seattle police conduct in response to the protests. As of Friday, those contacts have led to 141 investigations, the agency said.

Seattle Times Staff reporter Mike Carter contributed to this report.

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