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Seattle police should apologize for 2020 protest response, oversight panel says

caption: Police pepper spray protesters, Saturday, July 25, 2020, near Seattle Central Community College in Seattle. A large group of protesters were marching Saturday in Seattle in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality and racial injustice.
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Police pepper spray protesters, Saturday, July 25, 2020, near Seattle Central Community College in Seattle. A large group of protesters were marching Saturday in Seattle in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality and racial injustice.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

The Seattle Police Department should apologize to protesters for its responses amid the 2020 protests, according to the latest report from the city's Office of Inspector General.

The suggestion of an apology stands out among 22 recommendations included in a report from Seattle's Office of Inspector General, most of which address Seattle Police policies, tactics, and training (see the full list of recommendations below). In full, the recommendation states: "Acknowledge the harm to BIPOC community caused by Seattle Police actions over time and issue a public apology for the actions of Seattle Police during the 2020 protests."

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Other recommendations include better communication with media; addressing officer fatigue and providing mental and physical support; increasing the diversity of officers in crowd management; and evaluating police policies, including use of force and bicycle tactics.

The recommendations focus on the department's actions during the 2020 protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. They are the result of a report focusing on "crowd management tactics" used by Seattle police at three protests between July and September 2020.

  • July 25: March on Capitol Hill that included more than 5,000 people. Police reported using force 140 times over 11 hours.
  • September 7: Protest outside the office of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, during which police reported 56 reports of use of force incidents over 90 minutes.
  • September 23: March on Capitol Hill, following a Kentucky grand jury's decision on the death of Breonna Taylor. Police reported 45 use-of-force incidents over four hours.

The Office of Inspector General began its review process in the fall of 2020 following concerns over police response to protests. This process — called "Sentinel Event Reviews" — included a panel of community members, police officers, and police accountability stakeholders.

This is the fourth and final report as a result of that work.

The inspector general relied on police cameras, investigations by the Office of Police Accountability, Seattle police reports, media accounts and social media.

The panel met for about 15 hours over six weeks to discuss the incidents in the report.

Statement from Seattle Police Department

Following the OIG's report Monday morning, the Seattle Police Department provided KUOW the following statement:

"The Department again thanks the OIG for its thoughtful work to bring community members together with men and women of SPD to forge connection and dialogue around the events of 2020. As Chief Diaz has previously noted, this process facilitated a first-of-its-kind opportunity for reform grounded in reconciliation and healing which continues to inform next iterations of policy and training. Consistent with recommendations that flowed from earlier waves of this process, most of the recommendations from this wave that fall within SPD’s purview to implement align with recommendations that SPD itself identified and have been implemented – some as early as in the 2021 revisions to our crowd management and use of force policies that were ultimately approved by the federal court. With respect to those recommendations that do not fall within SPD’s purview or that require legislative action, we look forward to collaborative discussions with city partners to implement lessons learned as to how the City, in whole, can be better prepared to facilitate generational events of this magnitude in a manner that supports the safety, security, and First Amendment rights of all."

SPD adds that Chief Adrian Diaz apologized for actions taken during the 2020 protests in June 2021. This apology was included in an open letter that was also filed with the federal court. That letter stated:

"We know that paramount to the success of our efforts, and overarching all that we do, is our ability to restore the community trust that we know was shattered over the events of this past summer. We know that trust, especially in times of crisis, is a sacred promise that can be easily broken, and that restoring this trust requires not simply difficult conversations along the way, but true action. I pledge, for as long as I am privileged to hold the position of Chief of this department, that building community trust, grounded in principles of relational policing, equity, transparency, and accountability, will remain my highest priority. To those who have demanded of us no less, to those who have challenged us, and to those many city and community stakeholders who are partnering to re-envision how public safety services in this city are delivered, I extend my deepest gratitude and respect. Your vision, your experience, and your perspective are and will always be critical to driving change for the better. And to all with whom trust has been broken, to members of the community and the department alike who bear the physical and emotional scars from this past summer, and to all who are hurting: I am deeply sorry. Reform means that we accept the responsibility that is ours to bear, we learn from our experience, and we consistently strive to do better. We have, we can, and we will continue to do better. We will never stop listening."

Seattle police tactics and attitudes

In its latest assessment of the interaction between police and protesters, the inspector general notes that Seattle Police decreased its use of blast balls and pepper spray during protest in the late summer and fall.

RELATED: This woman died three times after Seattle Police hit her with a blast ball

Such tools had been common at previous protests, prompting criticism of the police department's handling of the events. Instead, Seattle Police shifted to bicycle tactics to manage crowds.

Previous reports from the inspector general stated that Seattle police engaged in "othering" during the events.

This point was stressed yet again in this fourth report. The othering fed into a "posture of anticipatory defensiveness and assumptions of protesters as organized and intent on violence — exacerbating the negative opinion of protesters to the point of dehumanization."

The inspector general said it urges SPD to counter this attitude.

RELATED: Video of Seattle officer rolling bicycle over protester's head leads to suspension

The report also recommends better use of Public Outreach and Engagement Team officers, referred to as "POET" officers. The panel suggests using these officers to facilitate better communication with media, protesters, and other officers.

22 recommendations

The inspector general put forth 22 recommendations. Verbatim from the report:

To improve communication with media and legal observers, Seattle police should:

  • Recommendation 1: Implement a staging area for media where possible.
  • Recommendation 2: Develop a process to identify a visual signal for media to obtain from SPD and wear as identification.
  • Recommendation 3: Explore other policies and practices from other jurisdictions regarding media presence at protests and events to incorporate best practices.
  • Recommendation 4: Work with a diverse range of local media outlets to identify best practices for facilitating observation.
  • Recommendation 5: Develop a process for POET officers to communicate with media during crowd events.

To improve crowd management, SPD should:

  • Recommendation 6: Task POET officers with identifying certain protestors as point people and coordinating direct communication.
  • Recommendation 7: Station POET officers strategically within crowds of protestors to communicate with officers on the front lines and to provide information about the crowd’s ability to move back, and to safely facilitate such movement.
  • Recommendation 8: Station POET officers in police vehicles equipped with LRAD to effectively communicate with the crowd.
  • Recommendation 9: Develop an ongoing assessment of the feasibility of crowd movement to increase on-the-ground awareness.

To address use of less lethal weapons and other crowd control equipment, SPD should:

  • Recommendation 10: Clarify current Use of Force policies to require an imminent life safety threat to justify over-hand blast ball throws and other uses of force deviating from general policy.
  • Recommendation 11: Evaluate the effectiveness of bicycle tactics for crowd control, especially during extended periods of sustained protest activity.
  • Recommendation 12: Clarify SPD policy 8.300-POL-3 to define “bicycle pushes” as opposed to “bicycle strikes,” and the proper reporting policy for each.
  • Recommendation 13: Require reporting of all bicycle tactics resulting in contact with a member of the public.
  • Recommendation 14: Log blast ball usage using tag numbers to evaluate reporting, including intent, justification, and outcome.
  • Recommendation 15: Evaluate the use of armored vehicles during crowd events and the impact on community perceptions.
  • Recommendation 16: Increase diversity of officers trained and selected as “linebackers.”

To increase accountability, SPD should:

  • Recommendation 17: Evaluate current Use of Force reporting during protests and large scale events to ensure accuracy and sufficient level of detail, including requiring explicit justification for each instance of force used and prohibiting the use of “boilerplate” justifications, and ensuring officers complete reports in a timely fashion.
  • Recommendation 18: Acknowledge the importance of discipline and corrective action for accountability as well as community’s perception of legitimacy of disciplinary processes, and evaluate current disciplinary policies and procedures to ensure consistency and appropriate levels of discipline.
  • Recommendation 19: SPD professionalism policies and training should emphasize avoiding actions that are or could be perceived as retaliatory or punitive, especially in defense of their facilities.
  • Recommendation 20: Acknowledge the harm to BIPOC community caused by SPD actions over time and issue a public apology for the actions of SPD during the 2020 protests.

To address the posture of anticipatory defensiveness, SPD should:

  • Recommendation 21: Develop policies to address and minimize officer fatigue during long-term protests:

-Recommendation 21(a): Consider reducing length of shifts; and

-Recommendation 21(b): Provide officers with mental and physical support to help reduce stress and exhaustion, including counseling and mental health services and offering sufficient opportunities for breaks, food, and water during shifts.

  • Recommendation 22: Emphasize in crowd management training the importance of differentiation and reliance on real-time intelligence, rather than general assumptions about groups that may be present.
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