Watchdog group: SPD ‘added fuel to the fire’ during 2020 protests with fabricated Proud Boys threat
An investigation spanning more than a year has revealed that several Seattle police officers participated in a coordinated misinformation effort during the height of social justice protests in 2020.
The ruse — which took place on June 8, 2020 — was first pointed out on social media by activist Matt Watson, when police officers were heard using radio transmissions to describe the movements of a group of right-wing Proud Boys protesters. Officers over the radio described how the group was marching through Seattle, saying that the group appeared to be armed and agitated, moving in the direction of the then-newly-established Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) area.
“Hearing from the Proud Boys group — they may be looking for somewhere else for confrontation,” one officer described over the radio.
At the time, Watson intimated on Twitter that the chatter was likely a fabrication designed to mislead protesters in the CHOP. It wasn’t until the end of that year, though, when an investigation was mounted by the OPA, and only after Converge Media‘s Omari Salisbury submitted a request for body-worn camera footage to show what was described by officers. Wrapping up its investigation in September of 2021, the OPA determined that officers had indeed actively and purposefully made up the Proud Boys protest to mislead protesters.
The operation included a range of SPD employees, including Bryan Grenon, who at the time was serving as the captain of the East Precinct. Grenon was later promoted to assistant chief, but is no longer with the department.
In an interview with the OPA, Grenon alleged that there was “no intent to put any kind of false narrative out there,” claiming that he had no knowledge officers were specifically citing the Proud Boys as part of the operation. Rather, he contends, the intention was “to come up with a system where we were just kind of feeding information, kind of more mundane, routine kind of information of the radio to make it look like we had more officers out there doing regular stuff.”
Other officers cited concerns over how protesters were monitoring police communications.
Then-SPD Chief Carmen Best denied knowledge of the ruse. Assistant Chief of Patrol Operations Tom Mahaffey did tell the OPA that he was tacitly aware of it, although he claims he did not directly sanction the operation, nor participate in its planning or execution.
According to OPA head Andrew Myerberg, Mahaffey’s belief was that “this would help prevent officers from being assault[ed] and prevent them from being thwarted in what they were trying to achieve.”
In his findings, Myerberg agreed that “there was a law enforcement interest in ensuring that SPD communications were not being monitored, and thus, maintaining the safety of officers.” Despite that, he also noted that he “does not believe that there is any evidence in the record indicating that, at the time the Proud Boys ruse was used, there was an exigent threat to life safety or public safety.”
“To the contrary, when the ruse was used, SPD officers had already removed themselves from the vicinity of the East Precinct and CHAZ/CHOP was being created,” Myerberg pointed out. “While anger and emotion were high within CHAZ/CHOP, there was no ongoing violence within the zone or imminent violence that could have been reasonably foreseen.”
“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 continued. “It was reasonably foreseeable to believe that the demonstrators would be afraid and concerned that the Proud Boys – some of whom were said to be open-carrying – would come to CHAZ/CHOP. It was also reasonably foreseeable to believe that this could cause demonstrators within the zone to take steps to arm and defend themselves.”
Ultimately, Myerberg concluded that the ruse “improperly added fuel to the fire” during an already-fraught stage in the year’s protests, “and could have had dire results.”
Myerberg recommended discipline for Grenon and an operations center officer, although neither are with the department anymore. He did not sustain allegations against four other officers who participated in the effort, finding that it was “predominantly attributable to the lack of supervision and guidance provided to them” by their superiors.
You can read the full report from the OPA at this link.
KIRO Radio reporter Hanna Scott contributed to this report.