Judge: Seattle police in contempt for use of blast balls at Black Lives Matter protests

A federal judge has found the Seattle Police Department in contempt of court for the indiscriminate use of pepper-filled “blast balls” and pepper spray during Black Lives Matter protests in recent months.

U.S. District Judge Richard Jones issued a 27-page order Monday in response to a motion by Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County to find the police department in contempt of his earlier injunction barring police from using force against peaceful protesters.

Jones found four “clear violations” of his order: one involving the use of pepper spray and the other three involving blast balls, a grenade-like device that explodes and spews pepper gas, The Seattle Times reported.

“Of the less lethal weapons, the Court is most concerned about SPD’s use of blast balls, the most indiscriminate of the four” crowd-control weapons he examined. “SPD has often hurled blast balls into crowds of protestors” when no immediate threat to the officers’ safety or public property could be identified, the judge found.

Jones also highlighted four instances where officers’ use of force complied with his order. All the other instances cited in voluminous briefs filed by BLM and the city’s attorneys were too close to call one way or another, he said, which Jones said was not a good thing for the police department.

“Some might say that four clear violations — out of four days of protests and countless uses of less-lethal weapons — must surely be insufficient to ‘vitiate’ (spoil) the City’s otherwise substantial compliance,” Jones wrote. “But this is misguided.”

The violations Jones found were more than mere technical violations of the injunction, he said. The injunction was issued after Jones found that SPD’s use of tear gas, pepper-spray and other crowd-control weapons were unconstitutional and that the department had violated the rights of thousands of Seattle protesters in large, early protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.

The police department agreed to restrictions intended to prevent further violations in an initial injunction, and then agreed to refinements — including not targeting reporters and medics — after mass protests in June and July, including the abandonment by police of their East Precinct and the temporary formation of a police-free Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP, zone.

The protests Jones reviewed for Monday’s findings were held on Capitol Hill on Aug. 26 during a memorial for BLM demonstrator Summer Taylor, who had been hit and killed by a car during a freeway protest on July 4; a protest at the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild headquarters on Sept. 7; and protests held Sept. 22 and 23 on Capitol Hill, one in response to a decision by a Kentucky grand jury not to indict the officers who killed Breonna Taylor in March.

Detective Patrick Michaud, a spokesman for the Seattle Police Department, told The Seattle Times the department would not comment on Jones’ ruling because the litigation is pending.

The judge set a Friday deadline by which the parties can submit briefs outlining possible sanctions for the violation.

Lisa Nowlin, staff attorney for the ACLU of Washington and among the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement Monday they are pleased the court is acknowledging the city’s “repeated violations of court orders and is holding them accountable.”

“Seattle Police’s continued use of less lethal weapons against protesters is disturbing and the City needs to focus on protecting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, rather than using force to prevent protesters from exercising their constitutionally-protected rights,” she said.