Despite Expert Advice, Seattle Won't Sideline Superheroes

Apr 26, 2013


An outside review was strongly critical of the Seattle Police Department’s planning and communication during last year’s May Day demonstrations. Police officials say they’ll be much better prepared as May Day approaches this year. But the report also recommended that SPD and the city attorney adopt a strategy to deal with self-declared “superheroes.”

Self-declared "superhero" Pheonix Jones
Credit Northwest News Network

  Those superheroes say they make no apologies for their presence last year, and they’ll be out in force again this Wednesday.

City police departments often have testy relations with their local superheroes, at least in the movies. But a real-life report to the Seattle Police Department advises SPD to explore legal strategies to restrict superheroes this coming May Day from “creating crime and interfering with law enforcement operations.” 

It’s one of the recommendations in a report written by Michael Hillman, former deputy chief for the Los Angeles Police Department. His concerns stem from last May Day. He says members of the Rain City Superhero Movement “were allowed to participate in the melee” at the Federal Court of Appeals building, resulting in allegations of assaults and crimes.

The scuffle at the courthouse was captured on video by the local superhero who calls himself Phoenix Jones. Jones – whose real name is Benjamin Fodor – regularly walks the streets of Seattle in costume, carrying a taser, pepper spray and a body camera to record his encounters. He says he and his friends were trying to defend the federal courthouse from vandals since police weren’t taking action. And one of the superheroes did use pepper spray.

Jones ridicules the Hillman recommendation as badly written. He says the idea that SPD can single out any special group of people and “restrict” them is absurd.

“You can’t say that!" Jones says. "What that should say is, people who are doing illegal activities should be stopped.”

Seattle police are quick to agree. They have no plans to take proactive steps against superheroes.

Jim Pugel is SPD’s interim police chief.

“We as law enforcement cannot get into the mind of individuals and take enforcement based on the way they’re dressed, even if it is a superhero uniform," Pugel says. "We can only do something once the action has been observed and that action is illegal.”

But Pugel says he’s happy to talk to the superheroes.

“Phoenix could get ahold of me or one of the commanders in the police department, and we’re not going to tell them what they can do, but we would discuss with them things that we cannot allow them to do, just like we would any other person," Pugel says.

The Hillman report suggests that SPD work with Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes to keep superheroes out of the way – but Holmes agrees with police officials that their hands are constitutionally tied.

“While you cannot control what protesters will do, it’s similarly difficult to have prior restraint, if you will, for a self-appointed superhero," Holmes says.

But Holmes says Seattle does not encourage vigilantism and the superheroes should be aware of the liability they face if they hurt anyone.

“And I would remind them that if last year is any indication, they won’t be the only ones in costumes and it’s going to be very difficult, especially if there’s any violence or disorder, for law enforcement officers to distinguish between someone who’s a self-appointed good guy, and someone who’s there trying to do mischief," Holmes says. 

Despite those words of caution, Phoenix Jones says his group’s presence in Seattle is expanding.

On a recent spring evening Jones walked the streets of Seattle’s University District. Star-struck college students stopped him to praise his efforts and snap his picture.

Jones considers himself aligned with law enforcement, however reluctant they may be to accept his help. He says he turned over his video of the May Day conflict to prosecutors. And he says he takes that vandalism inflicted by protesters personally.

“The Rain City Superhero Movement, my whole team, will not allow that to happen again," Jones says. "Every business owner that had something happen last year, I apologize, and it will not happen again.”

Jones says he already notified SPD that his group will have anywhere from 17 to 30 superheroes on the ground this year, up from four last year.

“I let them know that we’d be out and patrolling, and they let me know that they had it handled, and I said, ‘Perfect, then you won’t need us, but we’ll see you there.’”

Jones says he may be eccentric, but he’s fighting for an idealistic vision.

Meanwhile, SPD chief Jim Pugel says police officers will have a higher profile on the street this year than last May Day, so superheroes may have fewer opportunities to act.

Copyright 2013 KUOW