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April 17, 2021

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Seattle police chief announces tougher policy of prosecuting protesters who vandalize

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People who destroy property during street protests will be arrested and prosecuted under a tighter new policy coordinated with Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, interim police Chief Adrian Diaz announced Saturday.

The enforcement was to begin Saturday afternoon, when a demonstration was set for Occidental Square.

However, it’s unclear what if anything will be different. Holmes wasn’t at the news conference and in a statement, his office said misdemeanor policies are the same. No documents to outline any enforcement changes were immediately available.

“We only learned about it after the fact,” Dan Nolte, a city attorney’s spokesperson, said regarding the hastily called news conference.

Diaz told reporters he has wanted to crack down on property destruction for months, and that in his opinion, violent protesters and vandals aren’t promoting a cause.

“They’ve been focused on lighting fires, they’ve been focused on, you know, breaking windows, and these are things we need to work on,” he said.

His statements follow a protest on Inauguration Day in Seattle where some participants broke shop windows and shouted expletives directed at President Joe Biden. Diaz said Seattleites support nonviolent demonstration, ranging from environmental causes to Black Lives Matter.

However, “over Wednesday’s events, it doesn’t matter who is in the presidential office, it really is a matter of understanding that people are just out there for destruction,” he said.

That demonstration’s theme was “Abolish ICE,” the federal immigration-enforcement arm, according to protesters Wednesday.

Only a few dozen marchers appeared Saturday afternoon, and moved from Occidental Square and onto Second Avenue. As of 5:30 p.m. there were no arrests and no reports of crimes, said Officer Valerie Carson, police spokeswoman.

Saturday’s news conference followed a conversation Friday night during which Holmes and Diaz agreed to increase prosecutions, Carson said.

In some cases, suspects in lower-level crimes weren’t booked into jail last year because of worries about spreading coronavirus.

But even with the new policy, Carson said, there are several misdemeanor offenses that won’t get people booked into jail. The main difference would be afterward, when someone out on personal recognizance or bail is more likely to be prosecuted. Whether that means jail crowding in the near future is a question for King County authorities, Carson said.

Diaz spoke from the West Precinct plaza on Virginia Street, where a 6-foot-high wall of concrete block shields the glass-doored entrance.

Diaz said police have arrested about 600 people for various incidents in riots or protests since last spring, and often misdemeanors haven’t been prosecuted.

“I have been in conversation with the city attorney’s office, Pete Holmes, and he will be prosecuting these cases, from now on,” Diaz told reporters. “He has actually allowed us to have the support of his staff, to assist and review of those cases as they occur, so they can be prosecuted to the fullest extent.”

“When we don’t have any form of accountability for people — and many of them that are coming from outside the city — they will continue to do that destruction, and we can’t have that,” Diaz said.

He said authorities will take a hard line on people who have been arrested “four or five times” for vandalism.

“The Seattle City Attorney’s Office policy has been consistent,” Nolte said in an email Saturday. “Pete Holmes has no interest in charging peaceful protesters.”

When people are arrested, prosecutors review the cases “to assess the available evidence, the context of the arrest, and whether a jury of Seattleites would find the person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Nolte wrote.

Thousands of arraignment hearings need to be rescheduled because of COVID-19, and the Municipal Court currently holds arraignments only for persons who are in jail, Nolte said. So when people are arrested and released, they will have their cases considered “after the court more fully reopens at a later date.”

There is a statute of limitations of two years to prosecute gross misdemeanors, Nolte said. So prosecutions for arrests now might be possible months later after backlogs decrease.

Three arrests were made Wednesday night, he said. One person was jailed and charged with assault, a window smashing at the Pike Place Market Starbucks was referred to county prosecutors as a possible felony, and the federal government is handling a case involving damage to a federal building, Nolte wrote.

Extra officers were being deployed Saturday to downtown streets, said Diaz, without giving numbers. The Police Department was coordinating with the Washington State Patrol to deter people from entering freeways, and federal officers who would defend federal buildings.

Diaz said that along with COVID-19, property damage is one factor in downtown’s loss of more than 100 businesses last year.

In past years, such as during the Occupy movement, bicycle police customarily moved in lines between a crowd and the buildings to deter property damage. That’s not the norm nowadays, Carson said.

“We would like to protect buildings from being vandalized in the first place, and don’t want to cause undue conflict. It’s safer for protesters and officers to not be drawing that line, so to speak.”

Diaz said he redeployed 100 officers to patrol duty from other units last year, and that protest duty is draining department resources. Last year there were 50 homicides, compared to 31 the year before.

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