As most council members briefly left a meeting today after being disrupted by anti-police-brutality protesters, Council Member Kshama Sawant raised her hands in solidarity with the protesters.
  • Josh Kelety
  • Council Member Kshama Sawant raised her hands in solidarity with today's protesters.

Things got rowdy at a Seattle City Council briefing this morning as Seattle Police Department leaders tried—amid shouts from protesters—to answer questions about their response to anti-police-brutality demonstrations over the last two months.

Council Member Kshama Sawant requested the meeting in December, after the police department estimated it had spent about $586,000 in overtime on protests from mid-November (when the Ferguson grand jury decision came down) through December 2.

Since then, the SPD has updated its totals to reflect that more than $1.6 million in overtime was spent responding to protests through December 16.

This morning's meeting started with public comment. Protesters took to the microphone for half an hour to criticize the department for the number of officers it sent to protests, the gear they wore, the arrests they made, and, as Socialist Alternative’s Jess Spear put it, “police using their bikes as weapons.” The crowd erupted in applause after almost every speaker and then stood, some with their hands up, as the council tried to move on to other businesses it had scheduled between public comment and the SPD leadership’s presentation. Soon, some in the audience chanted “I can’t breathe” (a reference to Eric Garner, the unarmed black man killed by a police chokehold in New York) and “Black lives matter,” and then began singing. In response, Council President Tim Burgess briefly adjourned the meeting and most council members left the room. Among the few who stayed was Sawant, who held her hands up in a gesture that's become a major symbol of this movement.

During the adjournment, protesters considered holding their own meeting without the council, but then Council Member Bruce Harrell (who chairs the council’s public safety committee) told them he still wanted to have a public conversation with the SPD. Within a few minutes, Burgess and the others were back and joined by Chief Kathleen O'Toole, Deputy Chief Carmen Best, and Assistant Chief Nick Metz.

Harrell, Sawant, and Council Member Nick Licata peppered the SPD brass with questions about pepper spray, riot gear, and “flash bang” grenades.

“There’s been a general concern about protesters just being harassed—being followed around, being spied upon … just being harassed,” Harrell said.

Sawant turned to “a larger question of accountability here.”

“How do you decide this much money—$1.6 million—is justified to harass peaceful protesters?” she asked, questioning whether SPD could have spent that time and money on crimes like wage theft, hate crimes, and sex trafficking. (O’Toole assured Sawant the department takes wage theft “very seriously,” which she demonstrated by showing off a brochure SPD created about it.)

Throughout the meeting, some protesters shouted from the crowd while others shushed them. O’Toole fought to get her answers out, and a visibly frustrated Council Member Jean Godden repeatedly said she was having trouble hearing.

O’Toole, who called herself a “great advocate of the Bill of Rights,” told council members that the SPD’s “overarching philosophy … is one of public safety” for protesters, residents, visitors, and commuters. While she agreed with protesters that the marches were overwhelmingly peaceful, O’Toole defended the department’s dramatic response because of some disruptions at the November 24 protest, where some protesters threw rocks at police and a man carrying a handgun was arrested.

“We don’t want to spend any more overtime money than we have to, [but] it’s difficult to project what to expect at any of these marches,” O’Toole told the council. “After night one, we became more concerned. We staffed up.

In defending the SPD's strategy, O'Toole said officers "certainly never told protesters where to march," which drew shouting from the crowd. Protesters have repeatedly been directed onto certain streets or away from downtown.

One use-of-force complaint stemming from the protests is being investigated by the SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability, according to O’Toole, and a total of 25 people were arrested over 17 recent protests. (Some in the crowd said 23 of those arrested were people of color; O’Toole told them she didn’t have a breakdown, but would provide one. UPDATE: The SPD now says "14 were white, seven were black, one was Asian or Pacific Islander and three were unknown.")

In response to council concerns about why the SPD responded to a small protest at a mall in Bellevue, O’Toole said Bellevue police had requested help after hearing the protest would be significantly larger than it turned out to be.

Then the conversation turned to the intelligence the department gathered throughout the protests—namely, photos of protesters taken by plainclothes officers.

“I talked to people in our shop and all the photos taken had been destroyed,” O’Toole told the council. “The auditor assured me all [the photos] had been deleted.”

Ansel has been writing about the work of that auditor, who is supposed to be keeping an eye on the department’s intelligence gathering and is maybe not doing his job. Because of that reporting, the council is now considering strengthening the rules that govern what cops can gather and how much they keep.

Again, Sawant went to the big picture.

“Let’s assume the best case scenario, that [the photos] are always purged," she said. "The fact that your plainclothes police officers show up there to photograph [protesters] has a chilling effect. The people whose voices we need to hear—young people, black youth—they’re the ones who are going to feel that intimidation the most.”

Sawant told me after the meeting that she’ll continue to push for more civilian oversight of the SPD and hopes to schedule another public forum or meeting, hopefully on a weekend or evening, about the SPD’s response to the protests and some of these larger issues.

“These are urgent questions,” she said, “and the public deserves urgent answers.”