Judge orders Seattle to stop using tear gas, pepper spray during protests

SEATTLE — A U.S. judge on Friday ordered Seattle police to temporarily stop using tear gas, pepper spray and flash-bang devices to break up peaceful protests, a victory for groups who say authorities have overreacted to recent demonstrations over police brutality and racial injustice in the liberal city.

U.S. District Judge Richard Jones issued the two-week order after a Black Lives Matter group sued the Seattle Police Department this week to halt the violent tactics it has used to break up largely peaceful protests in recent days.

Officers last weekend used tear gas, pepper spray and other force against crowds that have demonstrated following George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best have apologized to peaceful protesters who were subjected to chemical weapons. But Best has said some demonstrators violently targeted police, throwing projectiles and ignoring orders to disperse. Both have faced calls to resign.

The judge said those objecting to police using violent tactics to break up protests make a strong case that the indiscriminate use of force is unconstitutional. Jones said it's especially problematic during the coronavirus pandemic and that weapons like tear gas and pepper spray fail to target “any single agitator or criminal.”

“Because they are indiscriminate, they may even spill into bystanders’ homes or offices as they have done before,” Jones wrote.

The police and the mayor’s office didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking comment on the ruling. When the lawsuit was filed, Durkan's office said it was “another step by the community to hold the city accountable for its response to the recent events.”

This week, protesters have turned part of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood into a protest center with speakers, drum circles and Black Lives Matter painted on a street near a police station. Police largely left the station after chaos last weekend, with officers tear-gassing protesters and some demonstrators throwing objects at them. Police used tear gas just a day after the mayor and police chief said they were temporarily halting its use.

Durkan tweeted that she visited the so-called autonomous zone, which has been criticized by President Donald Trump, to speak Friday with organizers and community about moving forward. She said that for as long as she can remember, Capitol Hill has been autonomous and a place people can go to express themselves freely.

Michele Storms, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, said the group was pleased with the judge's ruling.

“The city must allow for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and it must address police accountability and excessive use of force,” Storms said in a statement.

The ruling came as hundreds gathered in the Seattle rain and some businesses temporarily closed in response to Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County’s call for a statewide general strike.

The organization encouraged supporters not go to work or to work from home and to take time to learn about local elected officials and issues.

A silent march was meant to “honor those lost to police brutality and institutionalized racism,” with the silence also helping slow the spread of the coronavirus.