On Monday three bills introduced last week that put restrictions on the Seattle police Department come up for adoption by the City Council.
The first bill is low-hanging fruit: it requires that uniformed police officers not cover their badge number with a “mourning band.” Policies for mourning badges and their proper placement are described in the SPD Police Manual, and the manual’s section on uniform standards also requires uniformed officers to wear a badge. However, the Seattle Municipal Code only requires officers to wear a name-tag with their surname and first initial — not a badge. This bill would both add a requirement into the law for uniformed officers to wear their badges, but also prohibit covering up the badge number with a mourning band (or anything else). It is written as emergency legislation, so assuming the Mayor approves it would take effect immediately.
The second bill bans chokeholds by SPD officers. That includes “neck restraints” and “carotid restraints,” techniques applied to restrain or disable a subject either by applying pressure to the windpipe or front are of the neck, or applying pressure to the carotid artery, jugular vein, or sides of the neck. Both can render a subject unconscious, and if applied improperly or for too long can kill someone. George Floyd was killed by a police officer who applied a chokehold for over eight minutes — while Floyd was handcuffed. Police are trained on multiple techniques for restraining subjects, not just chokeholds. The SPD Manual specifies that officers are only authorized to use chokeholds when deadly force is authorized, and all uses of chokeholds are automatically reviewed by SPD’s Force Investigation Team as “Type III” uses of force.
The third bill, and likely the most controversial, would ban SPD from owning, purchasing, renting, storing, or using “crowd control weapons.” It defines “crowd control weapons” as:
kinetic impact projectiles, chemical irritants, acoustic weapons, directed energy weapons, water cannons, disorientation devices, ultrasonic cannons, or any other device that is designed to be used on multiple individuals for crowd control and has the potential to cause pain or discomfort.
OC spray, otherwise known as “pepper spray,” is still allowed for use on individuals (not crowds), but not in a “demonstration, rally or other First Amendment-protected event,” or “when used to subdue an individual in the process of committing a criminal act or presenting an imminent danger to others, it lands on anyone other than that individual.” That second prohibition means that practically speaking, it can’t be used; even when the spray is directed at an individual, it’s likely to splash.
The bill grants a private right of action of at least $10,000 to individuals for “injuries proximately caused” in violation of the law. It would also apply to other law enforcement agencies operating in Seattle under a mutual aid agreement, or operating under their own authority.
SPD has certainly shown over the past two weeks that they can escalate confrontations with crowds and respond with disproportionate use of force, and it seems fitting for the Council to be considering how best to restrict the police’s access to crowd control weapons. The preamble of the bill lists the litany of complaints about SPD use of force during the demonstrations that are now being investigated by the OPA. That said, it might be premature to pass this broad of a restriction without first answering two key policy questions:
1. Under what circumstances, if any, is it appropriate for SPD to take action to disperse or subdue a crowd?
2. If and when it is appropriate, which tools and techniques should be available to police officers?
Without that guidance, it’s difficult to understand the full effect of this bill. Does it ban essentially all methods for dispersing a crowd other than asking nicely? Are the remaining available methods effective in the situations where SPD is expected to take action, or would these restrictions effectively disarm the police force? The three arms of the city’s police accountability system, the OIG, OPA and CPC, have been asked by both the Mayor and the City Council to review SPD’s crowd-control policies and provide recommendations that hopefully address the two questions above; it might be prudent to wait for their report before marching ahead with legislation. This is especially true now that a judge has issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting most, if not all, of the same crowd-control weapons that this bill would address for use against peaceful demonstrations.
We’ll see how the Council handles these bills on Monday afternoon.
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