Seattle police launch criminal investigation into arson, explosives in violent riots

A trailer on a construction site for a youth detention center burns after protesters targeted the site during protests in Seattle on July 25, 2020, in Seattle, Washington.
A trailer on a construction site for a youth detention center burns after protesters targeted the site during protests in Seattle on July 25, 2020, in Seattle, Washington. | David Ryder/Getty Images

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said Wednesday that a criminal investigation has been launched to find the perpetrators involved in setting fires to property and hurling explosives at officers in violent riots over the weekend. 

Best made the announcement alongside Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan at Wednesday's news conference where she revealed that police discovered a cache of fireworks, stun guns, pepper spray, and spike strips inside a van that was used by a dozen suspects at a protest attended by 5,000 people on Saturday.

The van had also used in an attack on the Police Department's East Precinct in Capitol Hill where it was parked before someone threw an explosive into the building that blew an 8-inch hole in the wall. 

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After obtaining a search warrant police impounded the van where they also found pyrotechnics, smoke bombs and gas masks. 

Best stressed that the weapons found are “evidence that not everyone who comes to these protests are peaceful. Peaceful protesters do not show up in a van full of … explosives,” The Seattle Times reported of the police chief's comments. 

The rioters also set fire to five portable trailers on a construction site at the King County Youth Service Center. They also vandalized and set fire to a Starbucks, vandalized vehicles, and injured some 59 officers who were hit with explosives, rocks, bottles, and wood.

Best said no arrests have been made in connection with the van, but added, "we are going to follow up aggressively with the investigation." 

Officers were allowed to use non-lethal weapons including blast balls, pepper spray and 40mm sponge-tip rounds to disperse the rioters on Saturday, a day before a newly passed city ordinance banning officers from using non-lethal weapons was set to go into effect. 

U.S. District Judge James Robart on Friday night granted a request from the Department of Justice to block the city's ordinance.

The DOJ argued that banning police from using non-lethal weapons to control rioters would mean police would have to use lethal weapons. Days earlier, the judge had denied Durkan and Best's request to block the ordinance, saying it didn't meet the burden necessary to issue an injunction.

Robart stressed that the restraining order, filed on Saturday, would only last for two weeks, The Seattle Times reported. 

The police chief sent a letter to residents and business owners last Friday alerting them that due to City Council Ordinance 119805 — which was set to go into effect on July 26 before the judge's injunction — officers would be banned from using "less-lethal tools," such as pepper spray and would not be able to defend property from armed rioters.   

In the letter, Best said: “Simply put, the legislation gives officers NO ability to safely intercede to preserve property in the midst of a large, violent crowd. I have done my due diligence of informing them (city council) of the foreseeable impact of this ordinance on upcoming events.”

Best added that she wouldn't put officers' lives in danger by deploying them to disperse crowds without any equipment to defend themselves. 

Christopher F. Rufo of the Discovery Institute shared an attached image of Best's letter to Seattle residents along with a concerned tweet, saying, "The Seattle police chief is sending out letters telling residents: We cannot enforce the law. You are on your own."

The ordinance banning the use of non-lethal weapons was introduced by Councilwoman Kshama Sawant and says law enforcement agencies are prohibited from "using any form of chemical weapons, including tear gas, mace and pepper spray. It would also ban other police weapons of crowd control, including rubber bullets, bean bags, blast balls, water cannons and sonic/ultrasonic weapons."

Sawant was a supporter of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone and dismissed reports of violence as propaganda perpetuated by capitalists. She later said in a series of tweets that the crimes and murders committed at CHOP last month "underscore the urgency to defund police by at least 50 percent." 

Forty-seven suspects were arrested at Saturday's protest that escalated into violence. 

Best said at a news conference Saturday that when rioters set fire to the Starbucks residents in the apartments above had to be evacuated. She added that some rioters "threw cement block from the top of apartment buildings, trying to drop them onto people onto the street."

Some officers were "hit with rocks, explosives and bottles" as well as a "smoke bomb," she said. 

The police department reported such incidents to the public in a tweet Saturday: “Numerous incidents of bottles and balloons filled with liquid being thrown at officers. Police continuing to work to clear the area. Multiple dispersal orders issued. Crowd has not yet dispersed.”

Some rioters carried sledgehammers and smashed windows and spray painted cars. 

King County youth detention officer Daryl Breaux said her car’s windows were smashed and tires slashed, KIRO7 reported

“I didn’t deserve this, OK! I’m a hardworking individual, college-educated young lady, black lady at that! Born and raised in Seattle!,” Breaux told the news outlet.

“We support everyone’s First Amendment rights to free speech and to assemble, but what we saw today was not peaceful; it was not a peaceful protest at all,” Best said. “The rioters had no regard for the community's safety.” 

She added that, as promised, police did not use CS gas or tear gas on Saturday. 

The 47 people arrested in the riots were charged with assault, property damage and destruction. 

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