May Day report slams police
An independent review of the violence that rocked Seattle’s business core during last year’s May Day protests found that officers were confused over who was in charge and when they could use force to stop the violence.
Seattle Times staff reporters
An independent review of the violence that rocked Seattle’s business core during last year’s May Day protests is highly critical of the Police Department’s planning for the event, saying officers were confused over who was in charge and when they could use force to stop the violence.
The 62-page report, authored by former Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Michael Hillmann, was released by the Police Department on Tuesday along with its own much-delayed internal after-action report on the May Day response.
Hillmann’s report makes 38 recommendations and lists a litany of failures that allowed widespread violence and vandalism during a noontime march that left store and car windows smashed.
The department has refused to release a third document, a blistering memorandum written by the May Day incident commander, Capt. Joe Kessler, that, according to sources, pointed to flawed planning and interference by Assistant Police Chief Mike Sanford.
Seattle Police Chief John Diaz, who had commissioned Hillmann’s report, is to appear before the City Council’s public-safety committee Wednesday. Diaz was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chairman of the committee pressing for the after-action report, said his office received both reports Tuesday without advance notice.
Mayor Mike McGinn’s spokesman referred questions to the Police Department.
In a statement, police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said both reports found officers performed professionally throughout the events that day.
“However, there was confusion regarding event expectations. The lack of clarity had a negative impact on our response when a brief period of intense and orchestrated violence erupted,” Whitcomb said.
He said the department acknowledges that employees assigned to future demonstrations need to have “clearly defined expectations, equipment appropriate to the task at hand and the training necessary to deliver effective public safety services during dynamic, rapidly evolving events.”
Whitcomb said the department is working to ensure that the “experience gained from May Day 2012 is applied to May Day 2013 as well as any future events our city faces.”
Hillmann’s report concluded police lost control of the protest for several hours that day. Although most of the thousands of protesters marched peacefully that day, groups of black-clad anarchists broke windows, threw fire bombs and vandalized the William Kenzo Nakamura U.S. District Courthouse.
Citing planning gaps and deployment problems, Hillmann dryly concluded the department’s response “was not a shining example of successful crowd management and protection of property.”
“The ‘mayhem’ that resulted ... significantly damaged the credibility of the Police Department with the community because of the ‘appearance of inability’ to protect the downtown,” Hillmann wrote.
He placed blame both on the department’s lackadaisical response to the scheduled protests — it didn’t start planning until April 24 — and the execution of conflicting plans that “were described as being made up as they (SPD) went along.”
Officers complained they were given conflicting orders by Sanford and Kessler over when to engage the protesters, how to make arrests and when to employ force, particularly the use of pepper spray, Hillmann concluded.
He said officers were universally critical of the actions of Sanford’s spur-of-the moment decision to rush into the crowd in shirt sleeves to make an arrest, requiring officers to rescue him.
As a result, Hillmann said, everyone interviewed for his report said Sanford’s actions resulted in his rescuers having to use force against the protesters to extricate him.
Sanford acted because he believed others in command were not directing officers to stop what was occurring, Hillmann wrote.
Hillmann also took Kessler to task for not being more engaged as incident commander and for failing to adapt to changing circumstances.
Sanford was lauded for his foresight in creating initiatives on crowd-control preparation — contained in the department’s “20/20 Vision” reform plan released in March 2012 — that Hillmann found unprecedented and refreshing.
At the same time, Hillmann wrote, the department failed to integrate those initiatives during the May Day response, leaving officers confused and incident command “unclear.”
The department, aided by an emergency proclamation by McGinn allowing the confiscation of potential weapons, was able to regroup and take control later in the day, Hillmann said.
A number of officers interviewed expressed concerns that their actions and tactics were under the microscope of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which at the time had determined the department’s officers routinely engaged in excessive use of force.
The Police Department was involved in testy negotiations with the DOJ at the time, which led to a settlement agreement in July requiring the department to carry out sweeping reforms.
In a remarkable finding, Hillmann said the SPD rank-and-file had not received any crowd-management tactics training since the 1999 World Trade Organization protests that paralyzed those meetings.
Hillmann’s report said Kessler was not adequately involved in the planning of the response for which he had been placed in charge.
In the memo the department has not made public, Kessler wrote that Sanford unveiled a novel plan before the protests that, while reasonable on paper, never had been subjected to testing or training, according to sources familiar with the memo.
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, the sources said of the report.
Hillmann, too, found that staggered roll calls at multiple locations “contributed to personnel not being on the street well in advance of protesters showing up and/or being able to respond as needed.”
He recommended that the department consider the use of combined briefings centrally located and well in advance of events to allow early deployment.
Sanford presented information to commanders April 24 and during May 1 roll calls that was interpreted as a “hands off approach” to crowd management, including “no enforcement, invisible deployment” and no use of pepper spray, the report said.
“According to civilian interviews, the lack of overt police presence in the downtown area was described as a huge change in past practice,” Hillmann wrote.
Mike Carter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-3706. This story contains information from The Seattle Times’ archives.