Judge orders Seattle to pay attorney fees for Black Lives Matter’s legal case against police department

SEATTLE, WA — A federal judge has ordered the City of Seattle to pay almost $82,000 in attorney fees, which Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County incurred while pursuing contempt-of-court violations against the Seattle Police Department (SPD) for using less-lethal forms of munitions against rioters.

The contempt violations were for the improper use of pepper spray and pepper-filled blast balls by SPD against “peaceful protesters,” according to Q13 Fox News. Blast balls are grenade-like devices that explode and release pepper gas.

Last summer, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones had ordered SPD to stop using tear gas, pepper spray, foam-tipped projectiles or any other less-lethal weapons against “peaceful protesters,” according to The Seattle Times.

The police department at that time agreed to Jones’ restrictions and refinements, such as not targeting reporters and medics.

Then on Dec. 7, Jones issued a 27-page order in response to a motion filed by BLM Seattle-King County. Jones found the police department in contempt of his earlier injunction barring police from using force against peaceful protesters and noted:

“On some occasions the SPD has in fact used less-lethal weapons disproportionately and without provocation.”

In his ruling, Jones found four clear instances where the City violated the Court’s orders, according to ACLU Washington:

“On Sept. 7, an officer sprayed several retreating protesters in the face with OC spray. The officer approached the protesters from behind while riding a bicycle, and there was no specific imminent threat of physical harm against the officer.

“On Sept. 7, an officer threw a blast ball – an explosive filled with pepper spray – indiscriminately into a group of protesters, even though he admittedly did not know who his target was.

“On Sept. 22, an officer was ordered to throw a blast ball into a crowd of protesters at a march in Capitol Hill, despite there being no apparent physical threat to officers. According to the court’s order, a desire to create separation between protesters and police does not authorize the use of less lethal weapons.

“On Sept. 23, an officer threw a blast ball into a crowd of protesters and Judge Jones determined the officer demonstrated a clear lack of care for where the blast ball landed and that it was an indiscriminate deployment, therefore violating the Court’s orders.”

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The Seattle Times reported that Jones indicated that police should have only used the “less-lethal weapons” on those who were looting or vandalizing property. Using the “less-lethal weapons” indiscriminately against demonstrators “chilled speech” and probably discouraged some peaceful protesters from attending demonstrations, according to Jones:

“SPD’s use of less-lethal, crowd control weapons have surely chilled speech.”

Lisa Nowlin, staff attorney for the ACLU of Washington, said:

“We are pleased that 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.”

Jones ruled in December that out of the 122 allegations of “unnecessary force” BLM cited, four were in violation of the order he gave, according to The Seattle Times. Jones then wrote:

“If the Court had more evidence, many of these ‘remaining uses’ may in fact be ‘clear violations,’ making the City’s contempt even more grave than previously thought.”

However, for the other 118 allegations by BLM, Jones determined that the situations were “too close to call one way or another,” according to Q13 Fox News.

Judge Jones also stated that officers were justified in other instances. For example, he noted a couple encounters with protesters who used traffic cones and a broken umbrella to clash with officers, intending to do harm. Pepper balls were used in response.

In another incident, a protester struck an officer in the head, from behind, with a metal baseball bat while another person was throwing a traffic cone at him, and another was attempting to take his police bike.

It was found that the use of pepper spray was justified in this encounter. The officer also hit other protesters with pepper spray as he retreated, but Judge Jones stated that given the “extreme circumstances” of this incident, the deployment was permissible.

BLM Seattle-King County had originally requested the court to make the City of Seattle pay nearly  $264,000 in legal fees. It had also asked the judge to make it a requirement for the SPD to give BLM a use-of-force report within days of every incident involving force against a protester, according to The Seattle Times.

However, Jones drew a line and decided BLM was entitled to a much lower amount, and he also refused to grant their request to make SPD submit use-of-force reports to the organization.

Jones also refused Seattle’s request to reconsider his contempt finding against the city.

Overall, BLM’s lawyer, David Perez, was satisfied with the results. He told The Seattle Times:

“We are pleased that the Court rejected the City’s misguided attempt to reverse the Court’s contempt finding, and that the Court issued sanctions against the City.

“Our goal is to ensure greater safety for protesters through compliance with the Court’s orders, and this decision will help in that regard.”

 Perez also said:

“Asking the Court to find the City in contempt was not an easy decision on our part. But after witnessing repeated and blatant violations of protesters’ constitutional rights, we had to act.

“This ruling reaffirms that the basic principle that protesters have a right to exercise their First Amendment freedoms without fear that the City will retaliate with violence, and serves as a reminder that the City cannot violate the Court’s orders without consequences.

“We will continue to take violations of the Court’s orders seriously.”

Robert Chang, Executive Director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center, which also assisted in representing BLM Seattle-King County, said:

“This decision should be welcome news for everyone who believes in our country’s bedrock democratic ideals.

“People must be free to engage in peaceful protest without retribution from the City and its police department. It is crucial that officers protect free speech, not hinder it through force.”

Jones was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007.

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Author: G. Weg

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