Report: Seattle PD's approved 'misinformation effort' about Proud Boys was improper

Radio chatter about a nonexistent threat during unrest in 2020 was improper, a watchdog group said

By Daniel Beekman
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — At a crucial moment during 2020's racial justice protests, Seattle police exchanged a detailed series of fake radio transmissions about a nonexistent group of menacing right-wing extremists.

The radio chatter about members of the Proud Boys marching around downtown Seattle, some possibly carrying guns, and then heading to confront protesters on Capitol Hill was an improper "ruse," or dishonest ploy, that exacerbated a volatile situation, according to findings released Wednesday by the city's Office of Police Accountability.

A sign on the street reads
A sign on the street reads "Welcome to the CHOP" as protesters stand near barricades at the CHOP (Capitol Hill Occupied Protest) zone in Seattle on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

The Proud Boys is a far-right group with a reputation for street violence and with several members — including one from South King County — who have been charged with terrorism for alleged actions related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The ruse happened on the night of June 8, 2020, hours after the Police Department had abandoned its East Precinct on Capitol Hill and just as protesters were starting to set up the zone that was later called the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP.

The officers who participated described a group gathering by City Hall and moving around downtown. They delivered reports such as, "It looks like a few of them might be open carrying," and: "Hearing from the Proud Boys group. ... They may be looking for somewhere else for confrontation."

Social media posts warning about the Proud Boys by people who were monitoring police radio transmissions caused alarm in the protest zone, where some people armed and barricaded themselves that night. Though some people in the zone may have brought guns regardless of the chatter, the ruse "improperly added fuel to the fire," OPA Director Andrew Myerberg concluded.

In the ensuing days, police leaders raised concerns about reports of armed people patrolling the zone and extorting business owners. Those leaders, including then-Police Chief Carmen Best, later walked back the extortion claim, lacking evidence. But photos and descriptions of the scene became national news, even reaching then-President Donald Trump, who threatened to "take back" the city.

The June 8 chatter about Proud Boys was part of an approved "misinformation effort" via radio that multiple police leaders knew about, according to Wednesday's closed-case summary by Myerberg, which will be reviewed by interim police Chief Adrian Diaz for disciplinary rulings. Fabricating the group of Proud Boys as part of the effort violated department policies, Myerberg determined.

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But it appears unlikely that anyone will lose their jobs or pay over the incident. The two employees who ordered and supervised the misinformation effort and who Myerberg sustained allegations of policy violations against have already left the department, according to the case summary.

Myerberg didn't sustain allegations of policy violations against four officers identified as having taken part in the Proud Boys chatter. The officers used poor judgment, but their supervisors were mostly to blame for failing to provide adequate supervision, Myerberg determined.

The Proud Boys ruse was deployed at an incredibly tense moment. The murder of George Floyd had sparked more than a week of large-scale protests in Seattle, with the police barricading streets around the East Precinct and deploying tear gas. Later in June, two fatal shootings occurred in the CHOP zone.

Matt Watson, a Seattle artist and activist known as "Spek," immediately raised the possibility on social media that there had been a hoax. No one out on the streets had actually seen the Proud Boys group that the officers were talking about on the radio, and the officers were using irregular call signs.

But there was no investigation until late 2020, when Converge Media journalist Omari Salisbury asked OPA for body camera video from the officers who had supposedly tailed the Proud Boys group. When OPA couldn't locate any relevant video, the office launched an investigation.

The investigation was completed by September 2021; several months passed before Myerberg issued findings. The case was less of a priority than some others that involved recommendations of discipline against current employees, Myerberg said. The city's contract with the union that represents officers prohibits discipline in investigations that take more than 180 days.

Salisbury, whose questions spurred the OPA investigation and who pressed for the findings to be released, said he wants the public to know what had occurred. It's been 18 months since the Proud Boys ruse happened.

"It's important that everything about the protests comes out and until that occurs we can't move forward and heal," Salisbury said, noting that new Mayor Bruce Harrell has talked about trying to bring city together. "We can't be one Seattle until we resolve these issues."

Watson, who posted audio from the Proud Boys ruse on social media after someone sent him a recording from the website, contends the ruse was part of a wider attempt by the police to undermine the protests.

"Having a counterinsurgency operation conducted by our local police department in our own community is bonkers," especially given that the officers weaponized a group later involved in the Capitol attack, Watson said.

In a statement Wednesday, Harrell said the ruse had done "immeasurable" damage to public trust.

"Misinformation, especially of this inflammatory nature, is totally unacceptable from our Seattle police officers," he said. "This kind of tactic never should have been considered."

The Police Department had been cited for an improper ruse before, said Councilmember Lisa Herbold, noting a 2019 recommendation for better training has been only partially implemented.

The investigation

The OPA contacted the department's operations center and intelligence unit and learned there had been a miscommunication effort approved, ordered and led by a captain who later became an assistant chief and then left the department.

Myerberg's case summary doesn't name any of the people involved, referring to the captain as "Named Employee #1." But the description of Named Employee #1 applies to Bryan Grenon, who was captain of the East Precinct, became an assistant chief and has since left.

In an interview with OPA, Grenon said he came up with the misinformation effort because he knew people were monitoring police radio transmissions. He said the idea was to give them the impression that "we had more officers out there doing regular stuff."

Grenon said he didn't seek approval from Best or Assistant Chief of Patrol Operations Tom Mahaffey for the misinformation effort.

He said misinformation was used on June 8 in particular because "we were overrun with, you know, forces or protesters." An aim was to separate them and "get them into other areas." Grenon didn't know until later that the officers had decided to discuss a fictitious group of Proud Boys, he told OPA.

An operations center officer labeled "Named Employee #2" told OPA he was assigned by Grenon to carry out the misinformation effort by organizing some officers to "focus some attention on a location different than where the main police and protest interactions were happening." He said he didn't remember the Proud Boys ruse but also didn't consider it inappropriate. The aim was to "make the broadcast seem realistic" rather than to "incite fear," he said.

In a second interview with OPA, Grenon said the use of the Proud Boys was contrary to his guidance to Named Employee #2 and said the point of the misinformation effort was to protect officers from being ambushed.

Reached Wednesday by phone, Grenon said he was looking for "an innocent way to just throw out some distraction" at a time when the Police Department was short-handed and under pressure.

He said the effort was meant to target people intent on harming officers, drawing a distinction between those people and regular protesters.

"It was never my intent to cause alarm," he said, attributing the Proud Boys ruse to officers who got carried away.

"Hindsight is 20/20," Grenon said.

An officer who was involved in other aspects of the misinformation effort but not the Proud Boys ruse said the effort lasted for multiple days and mostly involved mundane chatter, like what officers were going to eat that day.

OPA interviewed three of four officers who were identified as having participated in the Proud Boys ruse. They said they weren't given specific instructions, other than to divide the attention of the protesters.

Best told OPA she didn't know about the effort. Mahaffey told OPA he was generally aware but wasn't involved. He said his understanding was that the effort was supposed to lure protesters away from the East Precinct, allowing the police to reoccupy the building.

Mahaffey didn't know at the time that the Proud Boys would be referenced but believes the use of a ruse was justified, he told OPA.

"We simply cannot have a chief or command staff claim that they are unaware of such critical tactical decisions. ... This cannot happen again, period," Harrell said Wednesday, promising to meet with Diaz about the matter.

Herbold said she would have expected more oversight from someone like Mahaffey.

The findings

Wednesday's case summary includes the Proud Boys transmissions until 10:14 p.m. The chatter continued past midnight, according to a recording shared by Watson, with officers describing the Proud Boys moving from downtown to First Hill in an attempt to reach Capitol Hill.

At one point, an officer said, "I haven't seen any long weapons. There might be one carry — one sidearm on a holster," describing the group as "very boisterous tonight."

At another point, the same officer reported a fight brewing between the Proud Boys and another group. He said officers had detained one person and later said he was going to confiscate "sticks, makeshift weapons."

The same officer later estimated that the group was 20 to 30 people, saying the Proud Boys were going to head east, toward Cal Anderson Park, near the East Precinct.

According to Myerberg, Grenon and Named Employee #2 violated the department's policies on discretion and truthfulness.

The effort lacked adequate guidelines (officers said they weren't told what to say or not say), was inadequately supervised (officers said they'd never participated in a similar effort before) and was inadequately documented (there was no after-action report, no list of who participated and no official recording made), Myerberg concluded.

Police are allowed to use a ruse only when undercover, to acquire information for a criminal investigation or to address "an exigent threat to life safety or public safety." Even then, state law says a ruse can't be so "shocking" as to violate "fundamental fairness." None of those conditions applied to the Proud Boys chatter, Myerberg determined.

"While anger and emotion were high" in the CHOP that night, "there was no ongoing violence within the zone or imminent violence that could have been reasonably foreseen," he wrote.

Had the officers only discussed innocuous topics, such as movies or meals, that would have been acceptable, Myerberg wrote.

"The use of the Proud Boys when it was known that the transmissions would be monitored took a volatile situation and made it even more so," Myerberg wrote, arguing it was reasonably foreseeable that the CHOP protesters would be worried and would "take steps to arm and defend themselves."

(c)2022 The Seattle Times

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