Despite risks, Seattle police defend use of 'blast balls' to control protesters

SEATTLE -- The Seattle Police Department was questioned Monday about its use of “blast balls” during volatile protests such as May Day, with some wondering whether the controversial crowd-control tool should be banned.

A “blast ball” is a small, grenade-like explosive that produces a loud “bang” and bright flash in an effort to disperse protesters.

Members of the Seattle City Council questioned the effectiveness of the tactic and whether the benefits to police outweigh the potential for serious injury or death.

“They are effective,” said Seattle police Lt. Marc Garth-Green, who helps to train officers in the tactic.

“The object behind the ‘blast balls,’ the way we’re utilizing them, is to create space,” he said. “We find, and nationally it's known, that if we can create space and never come into contact with violent protesters that it’s safer for not only the protesters, it's safer for us, but also the citizens involved. And so we deploy blast balls primarily into open areas to get a crowd to move, to start separating the people, and also to interrupt the thinking – the ability of the people who are trying to do the violent acts, to interrupt them from the ability to actually carry through with those acts and to move them from those areas.”

During previous May Day demonstrations, protesters and even reporters have complained about injuries sustained when “blast balls” exploded on or near them. The tactic has led to litigation against the city, and in June the Seattle Community Police Commission called on the department to suspend their use.

Brian Maxey, the department’s chief operating officer, told members of the City Council Monday that it would be unwise to stop using the tool, saying they allow officers to avoid hands-on uses of force, such as baton strikes and takedowns.

Garth-Green said officers have been trained in how and when to use the tool and that reviews are done to ensure that “blast balls” were deployed in line with that training.

“We do understand that they can cause injuries and, as cited, there’s a potential for death or great bodily harm,” he said. “Although very minuscule, it’s something we take into account in training when we discuss proper deployments or when to deploy.”