Judge orders Seattle to stop using tear gas during protests

SEATTLE -- A U.S. judge on Friday ordered Seattle police to temporarily stop using tear gas, pepper spray and flash-bang devices to break up peaceful protests, a victory for groups who say authorities have overreacted to recent demonstrations over police brutality and racial injustice in the liberal city.

U.S. District Judge Richard Jones issued the two-week order after a Black Lives Matter group sued the Seattle Police Department this week to halt the violent tactics it has used to break up largely peaceful protests in recent days.

Officers last weekend used tear gas, pepper spray and other force against crowds that have demonstrated following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best have apologized to peaceful protesters who were subjected to chemical weapons. But Best has said some demonstrators violently targeted police, throwing projectiles and ignoring orders to disperse. Both have faced calls to resign.

The judge said those objecting to police using violent tactics to break up protests make a strong case that the indiscriminate use of force is unconstitutional. Jones said it’s especially problematic during the coronavirus pandemic and that weapons like tear gas and pepper spray fail to target “any single agitator or criminal.”

“Because they are indiscriminate, they may even spill into bystanders’ homes or offices as they have done before,” Jones wrote.

Durkan, a former U.S. attorney, “believes the court struck the right balance to protect the fundamental constitutional right to exercise protest, with the need to also ensure public safety,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Durkan also has requested reviews of police actions from the Office of Police Accountability and the city’s inspector general.

Seattle police said on Twitter that the department would comply with the judge's 14-day order.

This week, protesters have turned part of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood into a protest center with speakers, drum circles and Black Lives Matter painted on a street near a police station. Police largely left the station after the chaos last weekend, with officers tear-gassing protesters and some demonstrators throwing objects at them. Police used tear gas just two days after the mayor and police chief said they were temporarily halting its use.

Durkan tweeted that she visited the so-called autonomous zone, which has been criticized by President Donald Trump, to speak Friday with organizers about moving forward. She said that for as long as she can remember, Capitol Hill has been a place where people can go to express themselves.

Trump has slammed her and Gov. Jay Inslee for not breaking up the occupation by “anarchists” and threatening to take action if they don’t. Both have assailed his comments and say they’re focusing on a peaceful resolution.

Michele Storms, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, said the group was pleased with the judge’s ruling.

“The city must allow for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and it must address police accountability and excessive use of force,” Storms said in a statement.

The ruling came as massive crowds gathered in the rain and some businesses temporarily closed in response to a call from Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County to launch a statewide general strike.

“As tens of thousands of people were gathering today to march silently and in solidarity against police brutality and misconduct, the U.S. District Court affirmed their right to protest, free from state violence. That is a victory for today,” the group said in a statement.

Durkan tweeted Friday afternoon that she and Best participated in the Black Lives Matter march, saying Best and her police department leaders have been working “incredibly hard to adjust and improve every day.”

Black Lives Matter had encouraged supporters not go to work or to work from home Friday and to take time to learn about local elected officials and issues. Organizers have demands for the city, county and state, including cutting at least $100 million from the Seattle police budget, ending cash bail and declaring racism a public health crisis.