Seattle Police Chief John Diaz took the hot seat Wednesday to explain to the Seattle City Council what went wrong during last year’s May Day protests. This after an outside review found police lost control for hours as some protesters went on a rampage through downtown.
The meeting was a short briefing; the city council will have the chief back later to fully explain what went wrong. A lot was detailed in two reviews just released, one done by the Seattle Police Department. The second was an outside review by former Los Angeles Police Chief Mike Hillman that was blistering. It found fault with planning, communication and execution, which led to confusion when things turned ugly.
Seattle police knew anarchists planned to descend on Seattle last May Day with violence and property damage, yet Hillman’s review found police didn’t even start planning until the week before the May Day event.
When asked how he would grade the response, Diaz replied: “I don't grade my response. What I do is for every response we try to improve from the previous response.”
The chief conceded officers weren’t fully prepared, even after the WTO riots of 1999 paralyzed the city and overwhelmed police. Officers weren’t given new training in crowd management tactics.
The report outlines a litany of lapses. The assistant chief in charge of planning, Mike Sanford, made it clear SPD was under the spotlight and officers should be cautious; for example, no use of pepper spray except for self defense. Sanford's message to commanders on April 24 and May 1 was interpreted as a "hands off approach" to crowd management," according to the report. But it was Sanford who rushed into the crowd when the violence was going on unabated and officers had to deploy pepper spray and rescue him.
The incident commander for the event, Capt. Joe Kessler, wasn't involved in planning, because he wasn't told he would be in charge until days before the May Day demonstration. Sources say he disagreed with the "hands off approach" Sanford presented at roll calls on May Day. According to the report, the approach included "no crowd engagement", and a plan to "hunt on the periphery to deter and interdict" in order to make arrests away from the crowd.
Diaz said the department successfully handles over 100 demonstrations a year. "This is one that we tried something new, different approach and what I would say about innovation is when you try something new it's not always going to work. But does that mean that you stop trying to innovatte?" said Diaz.
Diaz commended the rank and file officers who worked the May Day demonstrations, but criticized commanders for failing to give officers clear direction. "There was clearly some communication issues that we needed to work on," he said.
Diaz was asked why officers weren’t given more training after WTO. He said it’s because our city has had so many peaceful demonstrations since then and officers had handled these events without problems. But he concedes it needs to be done now and that 300 officers have been trained, about a fourth of the rank and file.
KING 5’s Linda Byron contributed to this report.