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Originally published April 29, 2013 at 6:30 PM | Page modified April 30, 2013 at 6:19 AM

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A year after chaos, Seattle police say they are ready for May Day

Stung by criticism after widespread vandalism during last year’s May Day protests, Seattle police have taken steps to avoid a repeat.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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One year after a May Day demonstration erupted in vandalism and caught Seattle police ill-prepared, the Police Department says it has learned from its mistakes and is ready to respond to problems when marchers return to the streets for Wednesday’s events.

Capt. Chris Fowler, who has been assigned to oversee this year’s planning, said Monday he was given a clear directive from the police brass about a month ago: Allow peaceful marchers to exercise their free-speech rights but be prepared to arrest people who commit crimes against people or property.

That message got muddled last year, when planning didn’t begin until a week before May Day and officers were sporadically deployed, with conflicting messages regarding when they could use force to stop violence.

As a result, police found themselves undermanned when dozens of violent protesters, including black-clad anarchists, broke away from a midday march, smashing windows at the William Kenzo Nakamura U.S. Courthouse, businesses and cars in the downtown core.

Assistant Chief Mike Sanford became a lightning rod for some critics when he bolted on his own in civilian clothing to make an arrest — forcing officers to come to his rescue and use force when he tripped and found himself surrounded by hostile protesters.

While no one was hurt, the business-oriented Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), upset at the police response, called for a thorough review.

The department responded with two reviews, one internal and another by a former Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief, but they were only released April 2 after delays.

This year, police are preparing for a 1:30 p.m. rally at Judkins Park in South Seattle, followed by a march to the downtown Henry M. Jackson Federal Building beginning at 3:30 p.m.

Police expect about 10,000 people to participate in what is being billed as the 13th annual May Day march for worker and immigrant rights.

What is likely to be a smaller demonstration, labeled an “anti-capitalist” rally and march, is set to begin at 6 p.m. at Seattle Central Community College. The route of that march was unclear Monday.

Participants in that event are expected to include people who favor “direct action,” Fowler said.

“So that’s a bit higher risk,” he added.

It was during last year’s anti-capitalist march that dozens of protesters wielding sticks, hammers and rocks went on a noontime rampage. A federal grand-jury investigation was subsequently launched, but no charges have been brought.

Police do not have intelligence information pointing to any specific problem, Fowler said.

Officers will not line the streets wall to wall, he said.

But they will be deployed in sufficient strength to deal with the size and scope of each event, as well as any “ad hoc” activities that might occur Wednesday, he said.

Fowler declined to say if plainclothes officers will mingle with the marchers, but he said enough officers will be available to respond to any groups or individuals who want to commit crimes.

If arrests are required, the goal is make them with minimal disruption to the demonstration, he said.

Police will hold a roll call before each event to make sure officers get clear instructions. Last year, staggered rolls calls throughout the day contributed to inadequate deployment and communication, critics found.

Among the issues were tight restrictions on the use of pepper spray and what some viewed as a “hands off” policy to crowd control, according to the former Los Angeles police official’s review.

Pepper spray will be allowed this year “when reasonable, necessary and practical to do so,” Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, the department’s chief spokesman, said in an email.

After last year’s violence, Mayor Mike McGinn issued an emergency order giving police the power to preventively seize objects that could be used as a weapon.

McGinn’s spokesman, Aaron Pickus, declined to discuss plans for a possible order this year. But, in an email, he said, “We are closely monitoring the facts on the ground and will respond appropriately.”

The DSA is confident that police have learned lessons, said James Sido, the association’s public-relations manager.

“We do feel SPD has a solid road map how proceed in these situations,” Sido said, predicting better communication and organization.

Overall, the department has a good history of handling such events, Sido said.

He said he was not aware of any businesses that planned to close during the demonstrations.

With attention focused on Seattle, there has been some speculation protesters might shift illegal efforts elsewhere, including Olympia.

In a statement Monday, the Olympia Police Department said: “Over the last few weeks, the Olympia Police Department has been receiving information that there may be increased criminal activity in and around May Day events. The Olympia Police Department takes threats of criminal activity seriously and are preparing staff to respond to crimes if they occur.”

Seattle Times reporter Mike Carter contributed to this story, which contains information from Times archives.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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