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How Seattle police seized control of volatile May Day night
After being criticized for being ill-prepared during last year’s May Day melee, police appeared to be following some of the recommendations that grew out of those failures.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Seattle police promised to be ready for this year’s May Day events, especially if they turned violent.
Throughout Wednesday, that translated to three obvious tools: deploying waves of bike officers, setting off blast bombs loaded with powdered pepper spray and creating paths to disperse an unruly crowd.
After being heavily criticized for being ill-prepared and undermanned when widespread vandalism erupted during last year’s May Day, police appeared to be following some of the recommendations that grew out of those failures.
Although windows at three Capitol Hill businesses were broken, the damage did not approach what occurred a year ago, when bands of protesters left a swath of smashed windows, vandalized cars and other damage in the downtown business district.
Police arrested 17 people — more than double the number of arrests last year.
“I think the police did a really good job,” said Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, and one of the most prominent critics of last year’s police response.
“They were well prepared, and it showed,” Joncas added.
“I think we did it right,” said Assistant Police Chief Paul McDonagh at a news briefing Thursday.
The first glimpse of the department’s strategy emerged during Wednesday afternoon’s march for immigration reform and workers rights, when police heavily relied on bike patrols, spread out along the route, to assist the flow of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators.
Just a month ago, an outside consultant hired by the police department to review last year’s response advocated such a move.
“The use of Bicycle Units to facilitate marches and public assemblies is a best practice and should be exploited,” Michael Hillmann, former Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief, wrote in his critique.
The department also followed Hillmann’s recommendation that bike officers be trained in crowd-control tactics, which came into play Wednesday evening when demonstrators turned angry during an “anti-capitalist” march from Capitol Hill to downtown.
After an attack on a television photographer, the shoving of reporters doing live reports and the arrests of two demonstrators triggered greater violence, officers got off their bikes at times and used them as a portable fence to control demonstrators.
They also raced on bikes to protect officers who were making arrests amid rock-and-bottle throwing from a surging crowd.
The incident commander, Capt. Chris Fowler, said officers used pepper bombs to disperse people after the increasingly hostile crowd ignored police orders to leave the area.
The use of the so-called “blast balls” is an advancement on the traditional use of pepper spray, a powerful and painful irritant containing oleoresin capsicum (OC), the ingredient that makes pepper “hot,” according to a Seattle police training video.
Essentially, they combine OC with another traditional, less-than-lethal crowd-control tool, the “flash-bang” grenade, which detonates with a bright flash and loud blast intended to disorient but not to injure.
According to the video, “blast balls” detonate in a cloud of OC powder up to 25 feet in diameter, driving anyone around them away. Tossed properly, they can be used to “herd” a crowd — in this case that happened to send the crowd back to Capitol Hill.
Officers were also given the discretion to use pepper spray when deemed “reasonable, necessary and practical to do so,” unlike a year ago when the messages on its use were mixed.
Hillmann’s report noted pepper-spray use must be based on what’s legally reasonable.
He also said it was crucial that the incident commander direct and oversee planning efforts — in contrast to last year, when that responsibility became clouded.
“The Incident Commander should be responsible for developing incident objectives, strategies, setting priorities and managing incident operations to include clarity of expectations,” Hillmann wrote, underlining the last three words.
In addition, the commander should be prepared during events for the “redeployment of on-duty personnel to critical sites/businesses; repositioning and coordinating resources to prevent property damage and make arrests.”
During Wednesday evening’s events, Fowler, who oversaw the plans that unfolded Wednesday, could be seen calmly walking the streets in his uniform, talking to supervisors and directing responses.
“It’s a safety issue,” he explained at the time the decision was made to use pepper spray to protect officers.
His cool demeanor stood in contrast to last year’s decision by an assistant chief to bolt into a crowd of hostile demonstrators, forcing officers to extricate him.
One of the key moves police employed Wednesday evening was to align officers in a way that dispersed the crowd in different directions, breaking them into smaller groups.
Joncas, of the Downtown Seattle Association, said police followed through on their pledge to support a peaceful march, but that if criminal activity occurred they were going to act quickly and decisively.
“In the evening, they did a great job in the face of a lot of provocation,” Joncas said.
She also credited the use of private security by businesses with minimizing the damage, as well as a pilot project in which business and property managers shared real-time computer messages that were passed on to police.
In the aftermath of the melee that ended with 17 arrests and eight injured officers, police said they are reviewing video, photographs and other evidence to investigate all criminal activity that occurred.
The department also will review the use of force by police, which spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said is “per department policy.”
While tensions were evident during the mayhem, some bystanders cleaned the streets of overturned newspaper stands and garbage cans while others cheered police.
Similarly, a customer at Bill’s Off Broadway on Capitol Hill left a $20 tip on an $8 tab Wednesday night after protesters smashed a window.
Bill’s owner Don Stevens was touched, and said he didn’t think demonstrators who turned to vandalism Wednesday night had anything against his bar, a Capitol Hill institution since 1980.
“If they’re out to get corporate America, Bill’s Off Broadway’s not corporate America,” he said, shrugging. “Somebody decided it was time to bust a window out, and our window was here.”
Across the street at Harvard and Pine, Mia Lawrence avoided any damage to her small deli, Mia’s Off Broadway, which was serving grilled chicken sandwiches to early lunch customers Thursday.
“If it’s going to be happening every year like this, I’m really worried,” she said.
She said she would have trouble coming up with the money to replace a broken window.
The protesters should reconsider the message they’re sending, she said, and to whom.
“This does not send a message. This gives a bad image,” Lawrence said. “Every time I see a protester walking by, it scares me.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Brian M. Rosenthal, Emily Heffter and Jack Broom contributed to this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @stevemiletich