'That's Not Crowd Control, That's Crowd Attack'
David Perez helped lead the charge to keep Seattle officers from violating protesters’ civil rights
Published in 2021 Washington Super Lawyers magazine on July 15, 2021
On May 29, 2020, four days after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, large street protests decried racist policing, and in Seattle, excessive use of force erupted.
For several days, the Seattle Police Department, already under a 2012 federal consent decree over racial bias and excessive use of force, deployed a battery of “less-lethal” weapons against hundreds of demonstrators. These weapons—including tear gas, pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, pepper-filled blast balls and rubber bullets—caused numerous injuries.
“Officers were throwing blast balls like beads at Mardi Gras,” says David Perez, a partner at Perkins Coie whose clients include Community Police Commission, a police oversight board. “The sheer amount of force used against protesters was astounding.”
A week after the protests started, Perez contacted Robert Chang, a law professor at Seattle University, who worked with him on prior civil rights litigation. Enlisting the ACLU of Washington and nearly 20 attorneys and staffers at Perkins Coie, they examined hours of video shot by citizens, then assembled testimony and evidence.
Within four days, the legal team filed a complaint and a request for a temporary restraining order, on behalf of the local Black Lives Matter chapter and several individual plaintiffs, against the city of Seattle and the SPD in U.S. District Court. Perez argued the case before Judge Richard Jones.
On June 12, Jones issued a temporary restraining order, agreeing there was strong evidence the SPD had violated the demonstrators’ First and Fourth Amendment rights. A few days later, the restraining order was converted into a preliminary injunction. Those victories led to a significant drop in police violence against protesters, Perez and Chang say.
But despite the injunction, more complaints about the SPD arose through the summer. Alexandra Chen, a law student at Seattle University, says an officer pepper-sprayed her in the face while she was trying to help another demonstrator, and that officers chased her and other demonstrators for miles.
“I still have post-traumatic stress disorder from this whole thing,” says Chen. “There are no words to describe how angry and disappointed I was with our police system.”
In July, Perez and his team filed a motion to hold the city in contempt of court for violating the preliminary injunction, working around the clock to interview witnesses. Perez again brought the case before Judge Jones.
To try to stave off a contempt order, the city agreed to beef up the preliminary injunction with broader protections covering the press, medics and legal observers.
“It was a fantastic order, a huge win,” Perez says. “If you compare it with any other court order in the country—from Denver, Washington, D.C., or Portland—no order was as detailed or protective as ours in restricting what police can do against peaceful demonstrators.”
Still, complaints continued, and Perez and his team filed a second contempt motion in September. “It wasn’t as bad as in early June, but it was really bad, beating protesters and dousing elderly women and disabled veterans with pepper spray,” Perez says. “That’s not crowd control, that’s crowd attack.”
On Dec. 7, Judge Jones found the city and the SPD in contempt. “SPD has often hurled blast balls into crowds of protestors,” he wrote, when no immediate threat to the officers’ safety or public property could be identified.
Perez and his colleagues are watching to see if Seattle police comply with the injunction. Meanwhile, Perez hopes the Seattle City Council will revive efforts to restrict police use of less-lethal crowd control weapons. Last July, U.S. District Judge James Robart blocked an ordinance passed by the council in June to do just that, on the grounds that the council couldn’t pass a law without following the process established in the federal consent decree.
Perez is cautiously optimistic that the SPD under its new interim chief, Adrian Diaz, can turn things around, though he says much depends on the contract the city negotiates this year with the Seattle Police Officers Guild.
“What’s really, really important to me is that I can take my daughters and my son to a demonstration for racial equality and not fear that the police will pepper-spray them or injure them with shrapnel,” he says. “That’s what we’re defending: the right to petition the government without fear of retaliation.”
What They’re Saying
The BLM case was the latest in a line of successful pro bono matters handled by Perez and Chang, including submitting amicus briefs in one case involving excessive sentences faced by youth offenders.
“These cases take a tremendous amount of work, and I’m so fortunate to be able to work with David and the resources he was able to bring into this case,” Chang says. “I was so impressed by David’s command of the law and facts to secure the TRO four days after we filed the complaint and motion.”
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes declined to comment on the litigation, but said in a written statement, “David is an outstanding lawyer who is not afraid to take on tough cases. He has been a consummate professional in court.”