In the week leading up to May Day, Seattle Police Department officers practiced bicycle track stands in Tukwila, riding up to cones and pausing for eight seconds before riding on. The bike force is a point of pride for SPD and, specifically, its architect, Sergeant Jim Dyment.
But SPD’s use of its custom-built mountain bikes and the behavior of the officers who ride them were hotly discussed Wednesday at a special Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee meeting. And the opinion of the committee chair, Councilmember Bruce Harrell, on a key aspect of the May 1 events was driven home with one word: “Idiotic.”
The daytime marches of May 1 began in Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park in the Central District, moved to Judkins Park near I-90 and wound downtown to a rally in front the federal courthouse. Bicycle police escorted the demonstrators, directing them along preapproved streets. Captain Steve Wilkse said Wednesday there were no arrests or uses of force.
Sgt. Dyment developed SPD’s bike program in 2000. “WTO really kicked it off,” he told Crosscut last week, referring to the 1999 protests in downtown Seattle, known to some as “The Battle in Seattle.” Dyment called the department’s handling of those protests “old school,” pointing to the riot gear and sticks. “The problem with that approach,” he said, “is the department is always going to have fewer resources than we need.” By relying on officers on foot and vehicles sometimes waylaid behind crowds, said Dyment, the department wasn't using its resources very efficiently. That helped lead to the poor handling of the situation
During the WTO protests, as Dyment watched protestors zip by him on bicycles, he thought to himself, “I wish I had one of those.”
Without a doubt, the timbre of last Friday evening’s unpermitted gathering on Capitol Hill, referred to as an “anti-capitalist march” by most of its participants, was far less colorful and organized than the day’s earlier marches. Many in the evening crowd, about 300 mostly young people, wore gasmasks and some hid wrenches up their sleeves. At least as far as was visible, there was no organizing leader nor any specific plan.
Posters advertising the Capitol Hill march read. “I hear May Day is going to kick ass,” with a picture of a masked man kicking a police officer. One man, who called himself Thumper, said he “absolutely” supported using force as a means to convey a message. Although no one said they planned on starting trouble, there was not the outright opposition to violence there had been for most of the day.
“Kent State started on May 1st,” said Dyment, referring to the shooting of four college protestors on May 4, 1970. “It built up over the course of three days. These demonstrations have exponential growth. We want to break that group mentality before it gets out of control.” Dyment called bicycles a “perfect” way to manage demonstrations because they allow officers to keep up with protesters and use their bikes as both blockades and protection. When asked how WTO would have looked differently had the officers used bicycles, Dyment said, “It would have been far easier to manage the crowd and there would have been less use of force.”
Although Detective Drew Fowler would not get into specific tactics for using the bikes, he said during the police preparations, “We basically just put ourselves in between,” separating protestors from property and, occasionally, each other.
Since 2012, the approach has worked, with May Day and Ferguson protests in Seattle remaining relatively peaceful. “The energy we put out there,” said Fowler, “is the energy we’ll get back.”
As protestors marched up and down Broadway, the energy was angry but, for at least an hour of marching, the crowd was peaceful. Then at 7:30 p.m., both protestors and police started shouting, the officers formed a barrier and one or two flash bangs were detonated, scattering the crowd.
At the time, there was little consensus as to how the event unfolded. But a video filmed by KOMO’s helicopter clearly shows a police officer riding into a line of protestors, tackling a man whose back was turned and then the man being buried under a pile of officers and bicycles. Captain Chris Fowler (no relation to Detective Fowler) told the committee Wednesday that the man had previously assaulted an officer and there was “probable cause to arrest that person."
Harrell wasn’t buying it. “Why wasn’t that person arrested directly after their assault?” he asked Fowler and Wilske. They answered that the assault had happened only minutes before. Harrell answered, “If we knew who had assaulted the officers and he wasn’t fleeing, it seems like we could have used a different tactic."
“It just seems really idiotic to me,” he added.
For more than two hours after the arrest, police chased protestors through Capitol Hill, hurriedly setting up blockades to downtown, lobbing flashbangs and shooting tear gas, clearly trying to corner the crowd and break that group mentality Dyment mentioned. By 10 p.m., officers had quartered off protestors back at Seattle Central Community College and the energy slowly dissipated.
In the meantime, 16 people were arrested and three officers were sent to the hospitals. During the public comment period at the committee meeting, several women exposed cringe-worthy bruising on their legs. “It seems like all of this occurred after the arrest of one person,” said Harrell.
Among the committee’s concerns were the use of flash bangs, which are not intended to be thrown directly at people, and blue sponge-tipped bullets, which are shot directly at suspects. Were these used as intended, asked Harrell and Councilmembers Nick Licata and Sally Bagshaw, and were they used excessively?
Fowler said the police are reviewing those questions and the entire sequence of events May Day.
Optimism surrounding the Seattle Police Department has been on the rise. Former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr has led efforts at the Criminal Justice Training Commission to improve preparation of officers statewide, and Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole was brought on as a reformer. A 35-year-old city ordinance forbidding outside hiring for other top police positions was overturned. Merrick J. Bobb, the independent federal monitor of SPD reforms, has said repeatedly that the department is showing progress on changes envisioned in a settlement agreement between SPD and the Department of Justice.
“We’re seeing a tidal shift,” said Detective Fowler. “Training has more emphasis on de-escalation training and bias free policing.” O’Toole, said Fowler, is “supercharged.”
But the SPD may have lost some ground last Friday, at least in the eyes of Harrell, Bagshaw and Licata. “This is not good relative to the settlement agreement,” he said. “It gives us proof that we have such a long way to go.”
Dyment’s bike program will certainly face more scrutiny as well.
As he left council chambers, Harrell looked at one woman with an enormous bluish-green bruise on her left leg. “You know what that looks like to me?” he joked. “A lawsuit.”