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Seattle police chief defends officers' use of tear gas on protesters

Protesters have been gathering in Seattle daily since last weekend, to protest police brutality. During those demonstrations, police have been accused of using tear gas to clear crowds.
Parker Miles Blohm
Protesters have been gathering in Seattle daily since last weekend, to protest police brutality. During those demonstrations, police have been accused of using tear gas to clear crowds.

The Seattle City Council grilled Police Chief Carmen Best on Wednesday afternoon over the conduct of officers during weeklong protests. Often late at night, police were dispersing crowds with tear gas and flash-bang grenades.


Critics said there appeared to be little effort to de-escalate the situation in ways that had been done in the past. Council member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the Seattle City Council Public Safety Committee, told Best she wanted answers.

“I have never in 25 years of participating in protests in the city of Seattle experienced such an indiscriminate use of tear gas, pepper spray and flash bombs against people who are not doing anything wrong,” Herbold told Best.

The police chief defended her department saying police were acting according to proper procedures in the use of less lethal force. She said those procedures have been approved by the federal court overseeing the police department. Seattle police have been under a federal consent decree since 2011, when it was determined the department used excessive force and was racially biased in its policing.

Best also told the council social media posts should be “taken with a grain of salt.” She said they don’t always tell the whole story. Sometimes police were defending themselves against things being thrown at them she said.

”The force is supposed to be used to protect life and property, including life and property of the officers,” she said.

Best promised all use-of-force complaints about the police will be thoroughly reviewed by the Office of Professional Accountability, which is led by a civilian. There have been more than 14,000 complaints over 13 separate incidents. Of those, 11,000 complaints are over the pepper spraying of a young girl that went viral on social media.

Best also told the City Council officers are having to deal with more than the peaceful protests. She talked about the smashing of windows and looting that started Friday night and escalated downtown on Saturday. She said large groups of people not associated with the protesters arrived with the intent of creating mayhem. She said, although police have experienced similar incidents with so-called black bloc anarchists in the past during the WTO and May Day demonstrations, the scale of this was something they hadn’t seen. She said at one point during a standoff at University Village, the groups used a drone to monitor where police were and, she said they used other tactics, as well.

“There were clear attempts to split our resources, new individuals were brought in by vehicles to support those that were already fighting with the Seattle Police Department," Best said. "Officers were being pelted with rocks, bottles and feces and there were attempts to blind the officers with these green-colored laser pointers that they were pointing in their faces.” 

Best said police have made more than 80 arrests, mostly for burglary associated with looting, destruction of property and assaults on police. 

She says police have made adjustments as the protests have gone to try and ease tensions, such as creating a 6-foot distance from barriers so as to make more space between protesters and the police line.

On Wednesday night, after meeting with the City Council as well as activists, Best stood in front of the police line during a protest. Tear gas was not used Wednesday and the city agreed to lift a 9 p.m. curfew that was originally scheduled to go through Saturday. 

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.