Seattle mayor, police chief vow to review tactics amid continuing protests

SEATTLE -- Seattle’s mayor and police chief promised a large crowd of protesters Tuesday to review the department’s use of pepper spray and flash-bang grenades to break up a crowd of peaceful protesters the night before, encouraging them to keep marching as long as they do not do damage.

“Your voices holding me accountable are important and you should continue to raise them,” Mayor Jenny Durkan told those assembled outside the city’s Emergency Operations Center downtown. “We want you to march. ... We want you to continue on the path of justice. But we need you please to do it peacefully.”

Earlier in the day Seattle’s police watchdog agency said it would investigate the use of pepper spray Monday night to break up a fourth consecutive day of large protests over the George Floyd killing.

The department insisted that demonstrators threw fireworks and tried to storm a barricade near a police station. Police Chief Carmen Best said one officer was struck in the face with a chunk of concrete.

But video posted on Reddit and Facebook showed that in the moments before the chaos began, an officer grabbed a pink umbrella that a demonstrator was holding just across a barricade as a shield against a potential application of pepper spray. Other officers nearby then began spraying chemicals and firing flash-bangs at the crowd.

“It was a beautiful, beautiful march for hours,” the mayor said. “We know the end was not how it was meant to be, and the chief and I have talked about it. We’re going to look at it.”

Durkan also promised to address underlying issues of injustice and discontent with the crowd. When one protester asked her when, she asked what the group was doing Wednesday.

Best expressed support for the protesters, saying, “As a black woman, I feel the same things you feel. Just because I wear the uniform doesn’t change that.”

During a subsequent news conference, Durkan emphasized that change is needed to remedy a deep history of discrimination that has marred the U.S. since its founding. She also spoke to Seattle’s efforts to reform its police departments; in her prior position as U.S. attorney, she led the Justice Department in forcing the city into a consent decree to change training and accountability practices after questionable uses of force.

She stressed that police uses of force must be rare, necessary and proportional, and she said she had concerns about police tactics used Monday night.

Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability said Monday it has received about 12,000 complaints over the Seattle Police Department’s handling of the demonstrations, break-ins and theft. There were reports that a young girl was tear-gassed, officers placed their knees on the necks of two people who were being arrested, and protesters twice grabbed unattended rifles out of police cars before being disarmed by a television news crew’s security guard. Many of the incidents were captured on video.

On Tuesday, the agency said it was adding Monday night’s use of pepper spray to disperse the crowd to the long list of events it’s investigating. The agency, which is led by a civilian director and supervisors, uses civilian investigators as well as Seattle police sergeants to conduct its work, then presents its findings and recommendations to the chief.

The city’s Office of the Inspector General will also conduct a review, Durkan said.

“I am extremely concerned that the crowd management tactics that I have seen being used by the Seattle Police Department are just out of proportion,” Seattle City Council President Lorena González said in an interview.

Demonstrators in Washington and around the country have been protesting the killing of Floyd, a black man who died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air.

The police department declared the protests a riot about 9 p.m., saying the decision was made “after a crowd threw rocks, bottles and fireworks at officers and attempted to breach barricades one block from the East Precinct.”

That explanation drew criticism from protesters and some city leaders. City Council Member Teresa Mosqueda tweeted a link to overhead video taken by a witness and posted on Reddit, which did not show projectiles from the crowd or attempts to breach the barricade in the moments before the chaos began.

“THIS IS NOT A RIOT,” Mosqueda tweeted.

González said the police and fire chiefs were due to discuss the demonstration response at a council meeting on Wednesday.

“We want to be able to get a better understanding of what the response was and has been,” she said. “My hope is that we’ll be able to correct course in a way that doesn’t eviscerate the trust we have spent so many years trying to rebuild with communities of color in our city.”

Best said a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew will remain in effect through Saturday. She said police do not intend to enforce it in a heavy-handed manner but want to be able to use it to keep the peace if necessary, given the looting and violence that occurred during last weekend’s protests.