A King County sheriff’s detective who was captured on video pointing a handgun at a motorcyclist during a traffic confrontation last summer has been suspended for five days without pay.
But the punishment announced by Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht during a news conference Monday at Sheriff’s Office headquarters didn’t result from pulling the gun, but stemmed from the detective’s lack of courtesy and unbecoming conduct.
“I’m disappointed in Detective (Richard) Rowe’s behavior,” Johanknecht said before announcing her first high-profile disciplinary decision since taking office in January.
“Your demeanor appeared angry and ‘amped up,’ ” Johanknecht wrote in a disciplinary letter to Rowe. “I believe your excessive use of profanity, your verbal and non-verbal communications, were ineffective, discourteous and not aligned with my expectations nor our department Core Values.”
However, Johanknecht defended Rowe’s decision to pull out his firearm during the Aug. 16 incident in North King County, agreeing with the conclusion of the department’s internal investigation.
She said she believed the detective’s account in which he said the motorcyclist reached toward his waistband, causing Rowe to believe he may have had a weapon. But she wrote in the letter that she and Rowe agreed he improperly raised his gun horizontally, instead of keeping it in what is called a low-ready position.
The motorcyclist, Alex Randall, 32, of Shoreline, was not armed.
Johanknecht said she deviated from the recommended discipline of 10 days suspension without pay because Rowe had undergone additional training, was apologetic and had time to reflect on the incident. In addition, she acknowledged the “extra stress” the detective faced due to the intense scrutiny of the event by media and the public and threats to his family.
Johanknecht also said she was swayed by the full video taken from Randall’s GoPro, which showed that the interaction between Rowe and Randall ended with a handshake and the fact that Randall admitted to prosecutors that he had been speeding before the encounter with Rowe. During his initial interviews, Randall had not told internal investigators with the Sheriff’s Office that he’d exceeded the posted speed limit.
“Put yourself in my position,” said Randall after the news conference. “My first interaction with somebody from the King County Sheriff’s Office was a guy pointing a gun at me in a really unreasonable way and threatening me and scaring me.”
He said he had been speeding and had possibly cut off the detective before he was stopped.
In the video taken by Randall with a GoPro camera mounted to his helmet, Rowe is seen pointing a gun at the motorcyclist during the confrontation, cursing and pulling Randall’s wallet out of his pocket.
Johanknecht’s predecessor, John Urquhart, had condemned Rowe’s actions shortly after the incident, saying he was “deeply disturbed with the conduct and tactics that were recorded.” He said he would use the video to train new deputies in how not to conduct a traffic stop.
Urquhart’s statements complicated the investigation, calling the fairness of the review into question, Johanknecht said.
Randall, who attended the news conference, said he was disappointed, but not surprised, that Rowe was not fired.
“This is pretty much what I expected them to say,” he said.
During a private meeting with Johanknecht and her chief of staff, Randall said he was told, “Had you not been driving the way you were driving, none of this would have happened. You made a mistake, then he made a mistake.”
“I said, I don’t (expletive) think those things are equatable at all: drawing a gun on somebody and speeding,” Randall said Monday.
Randall, who said his constitutional right to be free from unlawful search and seizure was violated, plans to file a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office.
He said he had been told by sheriff’s officials at the end of last year that the recommended discipline for Rowe would likely be a 10-day suspension. A displeased Randall said the punishment was insufficient and created another video to address the Sheriff’s Office’s findings.
In the video of the incident, Randall’s Yamaha YZF-R1 pulls up behind other vehicles at a stoplight at Northeast 145th Street and Fifth Avenue Northeast, at the border of Shoreline and Seattle. Rowe appears, on foot and in plain clothes, on the rider’s left side with a handgun tucked in tight to his chest and pointed at Randall.
Rowe says, “How ya’ doing?” and appears to startle the motorcyclist.
He does not show a badge or immediately identify himself as an officer, although the internal investigation noted that Rowe had his badge clipped to his belt.
Randall curses, and then says, “What are you doing to me?”
“What do you mean what am I doing?” Rowe replies. “You’re (expletive) driving reckless. Give me your driver’s license or I’m going to knock you off this bike.”
“I will pull over. I am unarmed,” Randall said.
In the exchange that follows, Rowe repeatedly asks the rider for identification, threatens to “dump” the bike if it’s moved and then takes the rider’s wallet from his left pocket.
Randall tells Rowe several times that he cannot hear through the helmet and asks for permission to move the bike off the roadway, turn it off or take off his helmet.
“I’m sorry. You have a gun drawn on me … I’m a little panicked,” Randall says.
“Yeah, you’re right, because I’m the police,” Rowe said. “That’s right. When you’re driving and you’re going to place people at risk at 100 mph-plus on the god-dang roadway.”
After looking at the Randall’s ID, Rowe puts his gun away, says he’s with the Sheriff’s Office and then tells the rider that reckless driving is “an arrestable offense.”
Randall said he never heard a siren, but the detective’s vehicle can be seen in a part of the video and it appears its emergency lights are activated.
Rowe did not give Randall a ticket.
Although the department investigation found Rowe initially didn’t properly identify himself, Johanknecht didn’t uphold that finding.
Rowe, who works out of Woodinville, had been on paid administrative leave or on restricted administrative duties since the video became public in August. He was reinstated to full duty on Monday.