Passions on display during listening session over Seattle police response to protests

©The Seattle Times

Police use a chemical spray to push protesters west on Pine Street in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood as planned protests for a "Youth Day of Action and Solidarity with Portland" on Saturday, July 25, 2020. - The Seattle Times/Seattle Times/TNS

SEATTLE — Passions rose and opinion divided sharply at times during a community listening session Thursday about the Seattle Police Department’s response to protests in the city following the police killing of George Floyd.

Some people spoke of mistreatment and pain they blamed on police aggression; others suggested the protest movement for Black lives had been co-opted by privileged voices, often white, and also disrupted by violence against police.

The Seattle Office of Inspector General held the event, by video conference, to allow people to weigh in on the police response as it conducts a “Sentinel Event Review.” The Seattle City Council created an inspector general role in 2017 when it passed historic police accountability legislation. Lisa Judge, previously a legal adviser to police in Tucson, Arizona, was hired to the post in 2018. The ongoing sentinel review, the department’s first, is designed to examine police actions during recent months of protest, identify gaps and flaws in the police response and promote structural change within the department.

“The purpose of this review is to look at systems. It is not disciplining officer misconduct,” said Geneva Taylor, a community engagement specialist in Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability, or OPA. Issues of misconduct will be handled separately by OPA.

Members of the public got three minutes each to speak and had the opportunity to comment on others’ remarks, which allowed something of a dialogue.

Several demonstrators alleged mistreatment they experienced or witnessed at the hands of police.

One man, who identified himself only by a first name, Seth, said he was still recovering from a concussion and permanent hearing loss he said resulted from aggressive and “disproportionate” use of force by police July 25.

Aisling Cooney, who explained that she had attended many protests, said she had been sitting with a group of peaceful protesters June 6 when police charged at the group on foot and on bikes.

Cooney said officers grabbed her, shoved her and sprayed her in the face with pepper spray, which covered her face, head and clothing.

“I ended up having to go to the ER,” Cooney said, adding that officers on a separate day tackled her, dragged her through gravel, took her to jail and told her she shouldn’t be protesting. “I am a 115-pound, 5-foot-4 woman who posed no threat to many officers in riot gear. I reject any characterization of them having any sort of restraint.”

Howard Gale said he had stopped attending protests after a few weeks because of police violence.

“I’m 65 years old. It was too much of a risk,” Gale said, arguing Seattle had only taken steps backward since the 1999 WTO protests. Those protests — when tens of thousands gathered in Seattle streets to oppose World Trade Organization policies — received community hearings and a review that Gale likened to the inspector general’s efforts today.

“Twenty-one years later, we are actually doing things that are worse — far more preventing of people’s free speech rights.”

But others, such as Andre Brown, were reproving of some protesters’ behavior. Brown, who was also critical of police leadership because officers in June temporarily abandoned the department’s East Precinct, recounted viewing livestreams that showed protesters firing insults, vitriol and projectiles toward police officers.

He wondered how police were supposed to react, given the dangers they faced.

“Do we see police officers as humans? Or more than human?” Brown asked.

Felicia Cross, a program manager for the SPD Community Police Academy who attended the meeting in a personal capacity, said the conversation was not resonating with her as a Black woman.

“As I listen, I’m still hearing the one thing this protest stands for is privilege,” Cross said, adding that she wanted to know what efforts protesters were making toward civic engagement on policing issues and being “a positive force.”

Victoria Beach, the chair of the African American Community Advisory Council to SPD, said she visited the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone and saw people throwing bottles and rocks at officers.

“Every protest put on by Black leaders has been peaceful,” Beach said. “Protest peacefully with us. … This movement has been hijacked by white protesters. I’m sick of it.”

Beach bemoaned the coming departure of Seattle police Chief Carmen Best, who announced Monday that she was retiring. Best has been criticized by some over SPD’s repeated use of weapons such as tear gas and blast balls at demonstrations. Best’s announcement of her retirement followed City Council votes to reduce her salary and the wages of SPD’s command staff and also to reduce the police force by as many as 100 officers.

“Now, we’ve lost our chief. We’re going backwards and I blame a lot of this on our City Council and mayor,” Beach said.

Several protesters acknowledged grappling with privilege and said they spoke out not to outweigh Black voices, but because they felt compelled to share their experiences of police brutality in a forum that aims to address the issue at its root.

Said Cooney of police officers:

“I don’t expect them to be more than humans, but I expect them to act with humanity, which I have not seen.”

The inspector general’s office hopes to complete its review of the May and June protests by year’s end, Deputy Inspector General Amy Tsai said in an email.

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©2020 The Seattle Times