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Council Passes New Version of Less Lethal Weapons Ban

Legislation developed with input from police accountability partners

Councilmember Lisa Herbold (District 1, West Seattle – South Park) and her Council colleagues voted 7-0 to approve legislation restricting and regulating the use of less lethal weapons by the Seattle Police Department in instances of crowd control. SPD policies implementing the legislation will go through the Consent Decree process before going into effect. 

Following the murder of George Floyd and local protests with heavy use of less lethal weapons, the City Council unanimously passed legislation in June 2020 sharply restricting their use, prohibiting use in nearly all cases.

After a July 2020 issuance by the Court of a Temporary Restraining Order under the Consent Decree, barring the bill from going into effect, the Public Safety and Human Services Committee underwent further process to revisit the legislation.

Consequently, the City Council conducted a collaborative review process during several committee meetings, seeking recommendations from the three accountability bodies: the Community Police Commission, the Office of the Inspector General, and the Office of Police Accountability. Later, Public Safety Chair Herbold held a roundtable discussion with the three accountability bodies and SPD, and considered new legislation based on the recommendations. 

The draft legislation was then sent to the Monitor and the Department of Justice for informal discussions. 

Councilmember Herbold released the following statement after the vote:

“For the past year, the Council has heard the call of our constituents that they want a police department dedicated to true community public safety, and that peaceful protests should not be met with force that can harm entire communities,” Herbold said. “While the Council responded swiftly to those calls last year, we’ve spent the last year ensuring the development of policy regulating the use of less-lethal weapons is consistent with the obligations under the federal Consent Decree, and worked in collaboration with our police accountability partners. The legislation maintains an absolute ban on blast balls and other disorientation devices. However, the legislation allows, in narrow circumstances, use of tear gas and pepper spray during a violent public disturbance. As the Community Police Commission said, there is still work to be done. But this is a good start in ensuring we’re balancing protections for free speech at demonstrations with the ability of officers to respond to violent activities.”

With the adoption of this legislation, here is what happens next, in line with the formal review as outlined in the Consent Decree:

  • First, SPD will draft policy revisions within 60 days
  • Second, the Department of Justice and the Monitor will review the policy revisions (this is when their formal review under the Consent Decree takes place)
  • Third, the Court will review the policy revisions (also required by the Consent Decree)
  • Fourth, if the Court approves the policy revisions, then the revised policies and the substantive provisions of the bill will take effect 

The legislation addresses a number of less lethal weapons; a high-level summary includes:

Blast balls and other disorientation devices:

  • Complete ban on blast balls and devices including acoustic weapons, directed energy weapons, water cannons, ultrasonic canons
  • Noise flash diversionary devices can only be used by SWAT outside the setting of a demonstration or rally and only when the risk of serious bodily injury from violent actions outweigh the risk of harm to bystanders

Tear gas:

  • outside a demonstration or rally, its use is limited to SWAT officers and only in instances where the use is reasonably necessary to prevent threat of imminent loss of life or serious bodily injury, and the risk of serious bodily injury from violent actions outweighs the risk of harm to bystanders
  • during a violent public disturbance, its use is subject to caveats in the ordinance (requiring training and a tactical plan), including the requirements that the use is reasonably necessary to prevent threat of imminent loss of life or serious bodily injury, and the risk of serious bodily injury from violent actions outweighs the risk of harm to bystanders.

 OC (pepper) spray:

  • Outside a demonstration or rally, its use is limited to instances where the risk of serious bodily injury from violent actions outweighs the risk of harm to bystanders
  • At a demonstration or rally but for purposes other than crowd control, its use is limited to where the risk of serious bodily injury from violent actions outweighs the risk of harm to bystanders
  • At a demonstration or rally for crowd control purposes during a violent public disturbance, its use is limited to where the risk of serious bodily injury from violent actions outweighs the risk of harm to bystanders

40 MM launchers used to deploy chemical irritants and launchers used to deploy pepperballs:

  • Outside a demonstration or rally, its use is limited to SWAT officers and only in instances where the risk of serious bodily injury from violent actions outweighs the risk of harm to bystanders
  • At a demonstration or rally but for purposes other than crowd control, its use is limited to SWAT officers and only where the risk of serious bodily injury from violent actions outweighs the risk of harm to bystanders.

The legislation does not regulate launchers for non-chemical less lethal weapons such as beanbag rounds or rubber bullets. For these less lethal devices, limitations of use for violent acts or property damage would be from SPD policies such as Title 14.090 on Crowd Management

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