A federal judge late Friday blocked a recently approved Seattle City Council ordinance banning police from using crowd-control measures like pepper spray as officers braced for a weekend of protest violence.
At an emergency hearing, U.S. District Court Judge James Robart issued a temporary restraining order on the Seattle ordinance passed last month, which bans the use of “less lethal” tools such as tear gas, rubber bullets, bean bags, pepper spray, flashbangs, ultrasonic cannons, water cannons, and other tools used to break up crowds.
“I urge you all to use it as an occasion to try to find out where it is we are and where it is we’re going,” Judge Robart said in a ruling from the bench, as reported in the Seattle Times. “I can’t tell you today if blast balls are a good idea or a bad idea, but I know that sometime a long time ago I approved them.”
The judge’s order came after a challenge by the Justice Department, which argued that the ordinance violated the federal government’s ongoing consent decree with the city.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best have also challenged the ordinance, sponsored by council member Kshama Sawant and passed unanimously last month by the city council following complaints from protesters about “police misconduct.”
This week, Chief Best issued warnings that the department would be unable to provide the same level of protection under the ordinance, saying “it would be reckless to have them [officers] confront this level of violence under the current legal restrictions imposed by Council.”
“It is a fact that there are groups and individuals who are intent on destruction in our City,” said Chief Best in a Thursday statement on the Seattle Police Blotter.
Federal tactical teams have been deployed to Seattle to protect federal buildings if necessary during the anticipated weekend protests.
“Yes, we also have seen weeks of peaceful demonstrations, but two recent events (Sunday, July 19th and Wednesday, July 22nd) have included wide-scale property destruction and attacks on officers, injuring more than a dozen, some significantly,” said Chief Best.
In a Friday letter to residents and businesses, she said that the department would have an “adjusted deployment in response to any demonstrations this weekend,” saying that she could not ask officers to “risk their personal safety to protect property without the tools to do so in a safe way.”
“Simply put, the legislation gives officers NO ability to safely intercede to preserve property in the midst of a large violent crowd,” Chief Best said.
Last month, Ms. Sawant cheered the passage of the ordinance, saying in a June 15 statement that Seattle had become “the first US city to take these violent weapons out of the hands of police.”
“Today’s movement victory is historic, but it’s only a start,” Ms. Sawant said. “It won’t stop police from terrorizing our communities, young people, and peaceful protesters. We have to move forward from today to build our movement to defund the Seattle Police Department, to end police violence and brutality, and to fully demilitarize the police.”