Memo to chief faults police plan for handling May Day violence
An internal memo says questionable planning hamstrung Seattle police trying to quell violence during the noontime May Day protest.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Months after Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz praised the police response to the May Day protests, an internal memo given to Diaz suggests flawed planning contributed to widespread violence and vandalism, according to department sources familiar with the matter.
A large part of the criticism has focused on Assistant Police Chief Mike Sanford and his role in managing the city's response to the marches, including his sudden decision to rush into the downtown crowd to make an arrest, without protective gear. Officers clad in riot gear had to help pull him from a hostile crowd, diverting police resources from the increasingly violent noontime march that left store and car windows smashed.
Diaz said Monday he received the memo raising "serious concerns" about three weeks ago, shortly before the department announced that Sanford temporarily would be removed from overseeing the Patrol Operations Bureau. Sanford, 51, was then reassigned to work full time on implementing the Police Department's "20/20" reform plan arising from the Department of Justice finding in December that Seattle officers have engaged in a "pattern or practice" of using excessive force.
Diaz said Sanford's reassignment was "absolutely not" related to his handling of the May 1 protest, but that they did discuss Sanford's actions. "I told him it was probably not a good idea for assistant chiefs in their white shirts to be leading the charge" in an arrest.
"I have 100 percent confidence in Chief Sanford," Diaz said. "Were there things that could have been done differently? Probably. There is always something we learn from these situations."
He said the city is trying to develop new tactics and methods to deal nonviolently with protests.
Sanford's star has been on the rise during the past year, and he has appeared alongside Diaz and McGinn as the city has moved to implement the "20/20" plan, which promises 20 reforms in 20 months. The plan has been criticized as lacking substance by federal attorneys and, most recently, in a July 13 letter from City Attorney Pete Holmes to McGinn.
The Justice Department has given the department a July 31 deadline either to accept a consent decree, with a court-appointed monitor to oversee fixes in the department, or face a potentially costly and prolonged federal civil-rights lawsuit. Talks were held throughout the weekend and Monday, with progress being made, said sources close to the talks.
Diaz declined to release the memo, identify who wrote it or discuss its specific contents.
Sanford was unavailable for comment Monday.
Diaz said the issues would be addressed in an after-action report the department is preparing and that an outside expert would be hired to review the findings. Business leaders called for the report just days after the protests.
At a City Council public-safety committee meeting last week, Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh was asked why it was taking so long to prepare the report, which was promised by McGinn and Diaz at a news conference on May 2.
McDonagh said the report was still 30 days from completion.
A day after the protests, McGinn and Diaz said they were pleased there were no injuries.
But the Downtown Seattle Association, upset at police response, called for a thorough review. Association President Kate Joncas said the attacks clearly were well-planned and were no secret, having been "discussed on websites well in advance."
"Given these facts," Joncas wrote, "we believe it is important to consider what additional actions could have been taken given the available information to restrict the ability of these individuals from entering downtown with sticks, hammers, spray paint and other devices that were used to cause significant damage to property."
The after-action review originally was assigned to a West Precinct commander who was involved in the May Day operation, but the assignment was taken away and given to the Special Operations Bureau under McDonagh in an unusual action, according to a department source.
Diaz said Monday the switch occurred because of the large scope of the protests and the department's use of new tactics during the May Day response.
Sanford unveiled a novel plan a week before the protests that, while reasonable on paper, never had been subjected to testing or training, according to sources.
It hinged on the use of undercover and plainclothes officers mingling in the crowd to identify troublemakers, but keeping uniformed officers on the periphery to make arrests if needed, the sources said.
One plan included placing SWAT officers undercover in the crowd, but that idea was abandoned at the last minute when the SWAT commander protested that his officers had no training in crowd control and management, the sources said.
It took the team a half-hour to get back into their "blacks" — the tactical gear they wear — delaying their deployment as violence escalated on the streets.
Diaz said Monday that "some different tactics" and a "different approach" were used.
Sanford also was warned that not enough officers were assigned to the protest, a problem exacerbated by a decision to stagger May 1 roll calls at different times and locations, according to the sources. The result was even fewer officers were available when needed and uniformed officers had no way to identify undercover officers in the crowds.
Sanford originally said officers could use pepper spray to protect themselves or other officers, to block entry of vandals into buildings or on the direct order of the incident commander, according to the sources.
But at the last moment, at 10 a.m. May 1, Sanford countermanded the plan and placed tight restrictions on the use of pepper spray and ordered there were to be no arrests in the crowd, the sources said.
Officers responded with stunned confusion, the sources said.
When vandalism began, a command van moved into place to begin deploying supervisors and officers, according to the sources.
But Sanford, in a white shirt, dark pants and dress shoes and without visible police identification, sprinted past the van and into the crowd, with officers running behind, the sources said.
His actions required officers to come to his aid when he was assaulted. Sanford's action also put officers in the position of possibly having to use force, the sources said.
Sanford, who joined the department in 1984, was cleared in May by King County prosecutors of criminal allegations that he abused his power in the handling of a sergeant's promotional exam, a traffic accident involving his daughter and the solicitation of charitable donations from subordinates.
An internal investigation then was ordered to look into the allegations. But it has yet to be launched, a source said.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302
Mike Carter: 206-464-3707