[Ed note: The police union and city attorney in Seattle said new laws banning chokeholds and crowd-control weapons like tear gas are “safety issues” that must be bargained.]
The use of chemical weapons for crowd control no longer will be an option, at least for now, for the Olympia Police Department and for the Washington State Patrol officers who work in the state Capitol.
Olympia police used chemical devices to scatter protestors during recent demonstrations in downtown Olympia in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The policies and protocols for their use, the number of devices used and the cost to city taxpayers were requested from the city, but were not immediately available.
The Olympia City Council voted unanimously to ban the use of pepper spray, pepper bombs and tear gas at its June 9 meeting, voting on a proposal brought forward by first-year Council member Dani Madrone.
Such weapons cause people to cough and sneeze, and public health officials around the country have raised concerns regarding the likelihood that use of these devices increases the chances of spreading the COVID-19 virus.
The ban took effect immediately and will be in place until the end of the pandemic — broadly defined in Washington state as a time when a vaccine or other treatment for the novel coronavirus is widely available.
“While this move for immediate action does not reflect the full concerns or the need for accountability, this is a concrete step that I can attempt this evening,” Madrone said. “We (also) need to assess the tactics of crowd control and determine if we are protecting the safety of those who are exercising their First Amendment rights.” Madrone has requested details on how Olympia police manage protests when what she termed “heavily armed vigilante groups” are present
She and other Council members have requested extensive information on police policies regarding crowd control, use of force and other practices not readily available to the public. They also raised numerous questions about what they called a lack of Police Department accountability and transparency. Council member Clark Gilman cited the upcoming hiring of a new police chief as an opportunity to thoroughly review department operations and examine its budget, which is over $20 million in 2020.
“Trust … we don’t have a lot. We have to regain it or gain it for the first time,” said Council member Lisa Parshley.
“Reliance on the old ways and tools [for the Police Department] stymies innovation and change and evolution. Can we do this better? Yeah, we can, if it takes elected bodies of government to take away some of those tools so that we have innovation, we have change and evolution, it will happen,” Parshley said.
Similar bans on the use of chemicals for crowd disbursement are in place in Seattle and Portland. On June 12, the Chief of the Washington State Patrol announced its officers also will not be using tear gas on demonstrators during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mindy Chambers is a 30-year Olympia resident with many years of experience in newspaper and magazine reporting and editing.
Banned for use abroad but not at home
The key ingredient of tear gas is actually a solid powder. To use the gas, you need a dispersal agent, such as the solvent methylene chloride, to carry the particles through the air. A typical tear gas grenade contains a variety of additional chemicals for heat dispersal of the irritant. The grenade can be shot or thrown. The gas recently used against protesters is banned in warfare by the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The US signed the ban with the reservation that they could continue to use the gas against their own civilians.
Beyond causing pain in people’s eyes tear gas can do other significant harm to a person’s body: “Tear gas is most often associated with making people’s eyes stream with tears. But tear gas actually affects many parts of the body, and can cause vomiting, digestive problems, respiratory problems, skin irritation and burns. In severe cases, it can contribute to asphyxiation and heart attacks. It has also been linked to miscarriages and higher rates of cancer.” Anna Feigenbaum, author of Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WWI to the Streets of Today