Black Seattle detective feared Proud Boys were chasing her. They were undercover sheriff’s officers
t was Saturday, March 13, 2021. Protesters gathered in downtown Seattle to mark the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed a year earlier by police in Louisville, Kentucky.
A Black female detective was undercover, monitoring the protest for Seattle Police. She noticed two men in an unmarked white truck following her vehicle aggressively, no license plates. Protesters had already called out the men as possible members of the Proud Boys. Concerned, the detective called for backup.
Seattle police swooped in to detain the men in the truck. They were not Proud Boys, it turned out, but undercover officers with the King County Sheriff's Office, also there to monitor the protests.
City police briefly handcuffed and frisked the driver of the truck, King County Detective Cyrus Bowthorpe, who prompted officers to examine the badge in his pants pocket. His supervisor, Sergeant Pat McCurdy, remained in the truck. After a few moments, Seattle Police let both men go.
A subsequent investigation by King County determined that the sheriff’s officers violated numerous policies when they pursued the Seattle detective’s vehicle (see findings below). Seattle Police said the incident was an unprecedented lapse in communication that endangered everyone involved. The sheriff agreed that the mens’ actions created substantial risk of harm, according to findings obtained by KUOW.
Both Bowthorpe and McCurdy were disciplined for the incident, but the investigation exonerated them of racially biased policing and found no criminal conduct occurred. The county’s civilian oversight agency, however, said the investigation should have found more violations by the officers, telling KUOW that someone without a badge would likely have faced a criminal charge.
Both Bowthorpe and McCurdy have since left the sheriff’s office.
Documents and bodycam footage detail missteps by King County Sheriff’s officers
A number of undercover police vehicles were monitoring the protest from a distance that night, without one another’s knowledge, according to records obtained by KUOW. McCurdy and Bowthorpe were assigned to perform covert surveillance to protect Sound Transit light rail stations. But the internal investigation found that the two officers’ actions went far beyond this scope.
McCurdy sat in the passenger seat as Bowthorpe drove a leased, unmarked white Dodge pickup truck. They had removed the license plates from the car, a violation of department policy, investigators said later. They noticed a dark-colored Nissan Rogue SUV also circling the crowd, which McCurdy said he recognized from previous protests. He directed Bowthorpe to follow the vehicle, on the suspicion that it was supplying aid or something more dangerous to the protesters, like Molotov cocktails.
At the same time, protesters and Seattle Police officers were noticing the white pickup. “The truck was called out as possible counter protesters, and potentially occupied by members of the Proud Boys,” according to King County’s internal investigation. Bowthorpe later told investigators that he and McCurdy decided to engage in what he called “an obvious, overt follow” to force the Nissan Rogue out of the area entirely.
“Just get right on their bumper like, ‘hey I am here, leave!’ And if they leave and look like they’re going to keep going – let’em go,” Bowthorpe said.
That tactic is not used or sanctioned by the King County Sheriff’s Office, as noted in the investigation’s findings.
The pursuit and tailgating had the effect of alarming the Nissan Rogue’s driver, the unnamed Black female Seattle Police detective, who was also undercover. (The sheriff’s office said it redacts the names of detectives who operate in a plain-clothes capacity to not compromise their safety.) She later told investigators that the county officers “created an extremely dangerous situation and that someone would have been shot had she gotten out of the car and confronted them,” according to documents reviewed by KUOW.
Once Seattle Police determined their undercover colleague was truly being followed, multiple cruisers boxed in and stopped Bowthorpe and McCurdy’s truck on suspicion of reckless driving. McCurdy later told investigators he had no idea he was chasing an undercover cop.
“All of a sudden [Seattle Police] swooped in with outstanding tactics and caught us completely by surprise,” he said, adding that it took a few moments to process what was happening. “I had this queasy, nauseous, adrenaline feeling as I was sitting there …as I started to realize what was going on,” McCurdy said.
Body-worn video from Seattle Police shows the traffic stop lasted less than two minutes. Bowthorpe flashes a sheepish grin as Seattle Police send them on their way. McCurdy later described the atmosphere as cordial, according to investigators. But both he and Bowthorpe noted that a female Seattle Police lieutenant on the scene appeared furious with them, per documents reviewed by KUOW.
Later that night, Bowthorpe told McCurdy that McCurdy should inform their captain of the incident, but McCurdy told investigators that it slipped his mind. Instead their supervisors learned of the incident the following week, through a phone call from Seattle Police’s now-Assistant Chief Eric Barden.
“It would have been nice to get a fucking heads up for this!” Bowthorpe recalled his captain saying when he learned about the incident.
Not ‘a big deal,’ King County sergeant tells investigators
A major focus of the county’s internal investigation was the fact that Seattle Police had no knowledge of Bowthorpe and McCurdy’s presence that night. Agencies conducting law enforcement operations in another jurisdiction have the responsibility to notify the local agency of their activities.
Bowthorpe told investigators he routinely shared information about his undercover operations in Seattle, but in this case that didn’t happen. King County supervisors told investigators that information wasn’t shared because Bowthorpe and McCurdy were only assigned to gather information and not to carry out any law enforcement operations.
As part of the investigation, then-Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht chastised Bowthorpe and McCurdy in writing for violating their orders. She said the men “decided to conduct the mission that you preferred over the mission you had been assigned.” Doing so “created substantial risk of a blue-on-blue encounter,” she wrote.
McCurdy, who was Bowthorpe’s supervisor and the higher-ranking officer in the truck that night, did not take responsibility for the incident. In interviews with investigators, McCurdy blamed both Sheriff Johanknecht and Antifa for the lack of information-sharing with Seattle Police. He said the sheriff’s office was limiting its collaborations with Seattle Police because the sheriff forbade her staff from working the Seattle protests, and because protesters were successfully obtaining and publicizing details about police operations and vehicles.
McCurdy told investigators he did not believe he committed any misconduct that night. “I didn’t then – and frankly still don’t – think it’s a big deal,” he said.
Consequences for the incident
Troy Olmstead, the chief of criminal investigations for the sheriff’s office, wrote up the findings in the investigation of Bowthorpe and McCurdy. Olmstead recommended that Bowthorpe be suspended for one day without pay, and that McCurdy be demoted. Sheriff Johanknecht concurred with McCurdy’s demotion, noting he had a history of previous violations, but adjusted Bowthorpe’s penalty to a written reprimand.
Investigators said the officers’ actions did not constitute the crime of reckless driving, even though they ran a red light while pursuing the Seattle detective. Normally, police officers are not bound by traffic laws in emergency circumstances, if they are driving marked vehicles with the approval of a supervisor – but Bowthorpe and McCurdy were flouting those norms. Still, Olmstead found that because there was no cross-traffic at the intersection when the officers ran the light, their actions did not amount to a “willful and wanton disregard for the safety” of others.
The internal investigation exonerated Bowthorpe and McCurdy of allegations of racially biased policing and failure to report misconduct. The undercover cop they chased that night and some members of her unit said the King County officers pursued her vehicle because she was Black. But the officers claimed that they could not see the driver of the Nissan Rogue well enough to discern her race – and investigators found those claims persuasive.
Documents from the investigation say that Bowthorpe “seemed genuinely surprised” to learn the race and gender of the undercover detective. McCurdy, meanwhile, told investigators that “he thought the driver may have been female,” but “he was not able to identify race,” according to the documents.
The sheriff’s office told KUOW that it has improved information-sharing with other agencies, as a result of the incident. Capt. Tim Meyer, a sheriff spokesperson, said operations planning is now “more frequent and robust.” He said, "Our partnerships with SPD and others regional agencies remain exceptionally strong."
Civilian oversight office says investigation findings should have gone further
King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight reviewed the internal investigation of Bowthorpe and McCurdy’s actions and issued its own findings. The office disagreed with the sheriff’s findings and said that there were grounds for additional violations, including findings of failure to report misconduct and of criminal conduct.
“If a layperson was driving in the aggressive manner that the deputies were driving, it would have been reckless driving,” Tamer Abouzeid, director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, told KUOW. “That does not change just because they are officers,” he added, noting that they did not present a valid justification for pursuing the Nissan Rogue.
Abouzeid said they also violated additional performance standards by pursuing a vehicle while undercover in an unmarked car. He said their actions would have created fear and confusion in any driver.
“I could just assume it’s two random people who are trying to carjack me or hit my car or attack me for any reason,” he said. Abouzeid also said there was not enough information either way to exonerate Bowthorpe and McCurdy of racially biased policing, and the findings should have reflected that.
Both officers have left the King County Sheriff’s Office
Bowthorpe and McCurdy both left the King County Sheriff’s Office after the incident. Bowthorpe joined the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office in February. In an email to KUOW, he said, “I quit King County and this incident is one of the biggest reasons I did so,” noting that he had attempted unsuccessfully to appeal the written reprimand. However, had he prevailed, Bowthorpe said he would have faced another obstacle: “I would have been fired from [King County Sheriff’s Office] because I would have refused to get the vaccine.”
King County's emergency proclamation required that all employees be fully vaccinated against Covid by October 18, 2021 and the vaccination requirement remains in place.
McCurdy now works in the private sector and declined to comment on the investigation.
Here is the sheriff's final disciplinary decision in the case of Detective Cyrus Bowthorpe:
Bowthorpe Cyrus Loudermill Results Letter Iiu2021 132 122921 Redacted
Here is the sheriff's final disciplinary decision in the case of Sergeant Patrick McCurdy:
Mccurdy Patrick Loudermill Results Letter Iiu2021 132 122921 Redacted
These are the initial findings in the internal investigation that was submitted to the sheriff: