If the less-lethal weapons policy saga was any indication, SPDs revised ruse policy will be... interesting to see.
If the less-lethal weapons policy saga was any indication, SPD's revised ruse policy will be... interesting to see. LESTER BLACK

After a month of grappling with the news of the Seattle Police Department’s “improper” Proud Boys ruse, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda went out on a limb and said maybe cops shouldn’t lie.

“We shouldn't have policies that allow for a ‘ruse’ to be used, and we should change that,” Mosqueda said on a recent episode of the podcast Hacks & Wonks.

But if “we” is referring to the council, then Mosqueda will be disappointed. In an email, Public Safety Committee Chair Lisa Herbold said she plans to let SPD change the ruse policies without legislation from the council.

The month after the Seattle Times confirmed that cops spread rumors of nonexistent Proud Boys during the 2020 protests, city leaders wrestled with the question of how much deceit we should accept from the police. Mayor Bruce Harrell, the current boss of the cops, captured the consensus in the city at a press conference on Jan. 12 when he called the ruse “unacceptable,” but he didn’t present a clear path forward, policy-wise.

"We have an open mind as to whether they should be abandoned altogether or whether there are limited exceptions where they should be used," Harrell said, acknowledging that ruses can be useful in instances such as protecting children from crimes online.

At the press conference, Herbold suggested SPD should perhaps prohibit disinformation efforts altogether and hinted at possible legislation from the council.

But neither the mayor nor the council will use executive or legislative power to get the cops in line. Herbold said that for now, she won’t be putting forth proposals related to ruses, and Harrell said he will continue to work with SPD, Herbold, and the Council to “review and refine” the changes to the ruse policy.

Harrell and Herbold appear to be aligned on the minor changes they think the cops should make to the ruse policy. In a statement, Harrell argued that SPD should outline appropriate uses, notify the chain of command when cops use a ruse, and record those ruses. Herbold presented the same prescriptions on the day after the Seattle Times published its report.

While the council holds the ability to legislate in this area, it would be difficult.

The department’s 2011 consent decree with the US Department of Justice created a formal process for any legislation that intersects with the oversight agreement. That process requires a review from the Consent Decree Monitor and the DOJ, followed by approval from the court. Herbold said that an ordinance determining if, when, where, and how the cops could conduct ruses would face the same issues as the “less-lethal weapons” bill did in June of 2020.

Ah yes, the winds of June 2020.
Ah yes, the chemical winds of June 2020. RS

That summer, the council passed an ordinance to prohibit the cops from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other “less-lethal” weapons for crowd control. It flopped: The judge who oversees reforms to SPD as part of the consent decree issued a temporary restraining order that prevented the policy from going into effect, so SPD never implemented it. The DOJ essentially warned that if the council took away the cops' less-lethal weapons, then the cops wouldn’t be able to resist shooting and killing protesters.

So the council took another crack at preventing cops from tear-gassing neighborhoods, this time with the help of various agencies who keep an eye on police. In June of 2021, Herbold reintroduced a new version of the bill with an exemption for SWAT, and the council passed it a couple months later. As of the end of 2021, SPD still had not implemented the council’s policy.

The council could avoid a similar yearlong headache by writing a law that requires the department to set its own policies and guidelines about when a ruse is appropriate, but that project doesn’t seem worthwhile to Herbold: “Since I trust they are already working on the policy, I’m reserving judgment about whether legislation like this is needed,” she said.

In the case of the less-lethal weapons, SPD revised its own policy before the council's got off the ground. However, the agency's revisions do not ban less-lethal weapons or limit their use to SWAT like the two council bills did; they just say that officers cannot use less-lethal weapons on a restrained person, and that officers must give a warning when using less-lethal weapons.

As of Tuesday, SPD said revision to the ruse policy is in its infancy. SPD will reach out to agencies both locally and nationally to collect ideas before drafting its own policy. Once the department has something on paper, it will request input from stakeholders such as the Office of Inspector General, the Community Police Commission, and the Council.

So basically, this huge scandal resulted in a few tense meetings, some finger-wags, and SPD spearheading policy to decide when it should keep its own cops honest. The council will still oversee the department’s policy-making to some degree – Herbold said she asked to see drafts before the policy is finalized – but the council will not have veto power, according to a spokesperson at SPD. When asked how the council would respond if SPD’s new policy did not meet its expectations, Herbold's office said they are "examining the issue of the Consent Decree" in creating policy on ruses.