Police to Council on May Day: Everything’s Fine

After subsequent years of street violence marking May Day in Seattle and amid a climate of tension over use of force by police in Seattle, the question of preparations looms large as the holiday nears once again.

In a short briefing before a committee from the city council Wednesday, Chief of Police Harry Bailey and a captain from the department reassured offered reassurance about the conditions for using force on protesters, and what types of force might be used.

Although two other council members were present, after a guardedly optimistic introduction by Bailey, the briefing became mostly a conversation between Councilmember Bruce Harell and SPD Captain Chris Fowler, who Bailey said would be managing the police response to the protest this year.

Fowler spoke in dry terms about the pepper spray and stun grenades deployed against protesters in previous years.

“They can enhance the attention of the crowd,” Fowler said.

Repeatedly, Fowler and Bailey stressed that the decision to use force on protesters would have to go through Fowler. Individual officers may still use force on individual people to stop a crime being committed or protect themselves, Fowler said, but the decision to use more widespread force such as tear gas or flash grenades would have to be authorized by him.

Hard numbers were notably absent from the briefing, with both Bailey and Fowler responding during the briefing and later, to questions from reporters, that they had not brought detailed figures on last year’s protest.

“If ten people were arrested out of a group of 300” causing property damage, Fowler said after the briefing, the concern for the department was that a violent crowd had congregated, not exactly how many people ended up in handcuffs.

In 2012, the department was widely portrayed as having been caught unprepared for protests that turned violent after a larger peaceful march through downtown. Windows were smashed and cars damaged as a group of protesters took a winding route down from Capitol Hill into downtown. Last year’s protest followed a similar pattern, with a smaller group leaving capitol hill in the evening after the conclusion downtown of a peaceful march of over 10,000 people. The smaller group damaged some property on its way downtown, but on arriving found police well-prepared. Using their bicycles as barricades, the police systematically divided the protesters, firing flash grenades and tear gas, and pushing the separated groups away from one another.

After the briefing, Fowler hesitated to call last year’s response a success since property was still damaged, but said the department planned no major changes or improvements.

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