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Crowd-control weapons at Seattle protests have caused injuries, heightened tensions with police

By Evan Bush and Heidi Groover, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

SEATTLE - In a summer of skirmishes between protesters and police, July 25 stands out for the volume of its brutality.

Tensions had been primed in days prior. Video of agents seizing a protester in Portland sparked anger among some demonstrators. Then, federal agents traveled to Seattle, against local politicians' wishes. And in an emergency hearing the night before, a federal judge blocked a Seattle City Council ban on tear gas, blast balls and similar weapons.

Protesters that day came away bloodied with bruises, cuts and burns after police used crowd-control weapons, according to court filings. Two people documented hearing loss. One described a cold shower after being "soaked" in pepper spray as "more painful than any other kind of physical trauma I have experienced, including broken bones and third-degree burns." A neighborhood resident wore a respirator inside his apartment and still wheezed for an hour with asthma.

In police incident reports, officers wrote that protesters punched them, shined lasers in their eyes and struck one of them repeatedly in the head with a broken umbrella. Seattle police said more than 50 officers were injured in the melee, and that one was hospitalized with a leg injury.

Two months later, the use of crowd-control weapons in Seattle still hasn't been resolved: Federal courts continue to review the Police Department's policies and last week, former federal court monitor Merrick Bobb weighed in, criticizing the Seattle Police Department's (SPD) use of these weapons and saying "there simply had to be better ways to handle" the July 25 protests.

While police have continued to periodically use crowd-control weapons during protests since, the events of July 25 provide a window into the damage these weapons can inflict and raise broader questions about whether these weapons contribute to an escalation of violence.

 

There is no official accounting of that harm upon protesters, observers, journalists and bystanders on July 25, though dozens have documented injuries from blast balls, pepper spray and other munitions in court filings and interviews. The civilian-led Office of Police Accountability (OPA), which investigates police misconduct allegations, has 18 open cases from the July 25 protests, including complaints about crowd-control weapons and allegations that police targeted legal observers and journalists, pepper sprayed a nurse and dragged a woman having a seizure, according to the OPA website.

Much has changed since July 25: Federal officers decamped Seattle. Police Chief Carmen Best, who faced criticism for her department's crowd-control tactics, announced she would step down. The City Council reduced funding to police, and later voted to override Mayor Jenny Durkan's veto against its budget.

But the conflict between police and protesters remains entrenched.

In a filing last week, Bobb, the former court monitor, said SPD has lacked planning and training in its protest response this year. Police have been too quick to label protests "riots," Bobb wrote.

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