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caption: Seattle police officers are shown shrouded in tear gas at the intersection of East Pine Street and 11th Avenue at 12:13 a.m. on Monday, June 8, 2020, in Seattle.
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Seattle police officers are shown shrouded in tear gas at the intersection of East Pine Street and 11th Avenue at 12:13 a.m. on Monday, June 8, 2020, in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Fake SPD radio transmissions during 2020 protests ‘added fuel to the fire’

There were many threads in the story of the racial justice protests that upended parts of Seattle in the summer of 2020. This week, we're learning more about one of them.

An investigation by Seattle's Office of Police Accountability found that some Seattle police officers sent out fake radio transmissions at a critical moment during the protests on Capitol Hill.

Those transmissions described the presence of far-right Proud Boys, an extremist group with a history of violence, walking around downtown Seattle. The report says the fake radio chatter on June 8 2020 was an "improper ruse" that "added fuel to the fire."

We know about this because of the work of Converge Media journalist Omari Salisbury, who extensively covered the 2020 protests. He told KUOW’s Kim Malcolm about his reporting.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kim Malcolm: Take us back to June 8, 2020 on Capitol Hill. Remind us what was happening with the protests that night.

Omari Salisbury: You have to remember that the day before, someone drove their car into the protesters, and a protester was shot. The next day, the Seattle Police Department abandoned the East Precinct. That night is when this radio call came in. This was already a neighborhood that was on edge. Then people started repeating what the police were saying, that a group of 20-30 armed Proud Boys were on their way up to Cal Anderson Park seeking confrontation. The tone in the area just rapidly changed.

What kind of impact did the possibility that some armed right-wing extremists could be walking around that night have?

Well, we have it on video. It was like, "we have reports that the Proud Boys are on the way. Anybody who legally owns a gun and knows how to use it, please go get your gun so we're able to defend ourselves."

So more weapons could have arrived?

Definitely. I mean, people took a defensive posture — 100%.

Eventually, you asked the Office of Police Accountability for bodycam footage from police officers in downtown Seattle that night. Why did you ask for that footage?

A lot of different people put in requests. Every request came back denied. I reached out to OPA. In searching for the bodycams, they realized that there was no camera footage on any of that radio transmission, and they realized that they had a problem.

We've got a new mayor now in Seattle, Bruce Harrell. Today, he put out a statement about this investigation. It reads in part, “the damage done to public trust by an incident like this is immeasurable.” Is there a pathway forward for this with new leadership in the city?

I think the slow pace in which this report came out cheats Mayor Harrell, in a sense, from having a fresh start out the gate with police and community relationships. I'm saying that it's unfortunate, the slow pace that this came out, but it also creates an opportunity for him to show and display leadership skills, and be able to get to the root of these issues.

If there's anything else out there around the Seattle protests, let's get it out. Let’s get to the rock bottom of what happened, and that rock bottom is also a good place to build a new foundation, but it's definitely going to take some work. We, as a city, deserve an opportunity to know the truth. We deserve an opportunity to try to rebuild and create new relationships. It’s got to happen. It's better sooner than later.

According to the OPA report, the misinformation effort was approved, and multiple people within SPD leadership were aware of it. The findings are now under review by Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz. The Seattle Times reports that two employees who ordered the misinformation effort are no longer with the department.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.