The King County Sheriff detective who pulled a gun on an unarmed motorcyclist during a traffic stop on August 16 has racked up three driving or road rage related complaints in the last five years, documents from the sheriff's office show.
On August 28, motorcyclist Alex Randall published a GoPro video of Detective Richard Rowe, 53, approaching him from behind with gun in hand, barrel facing the camera. In the clip, posted on YouTube, Randall says he feels "a little panicky" because Rowe pulled a firearm on him. Rowe responds, "That's right, because I'm the police." Despite accusing Randall of reckless driving, the detective did not issue him a citation.
Randall's video went viral, King County authorities placed Rowe on administrative leave, and Sheriff John Urquhart personally called the motorcyclist to apologize. Three other civilians who lodged complaints against Rowe for his behavior on the road did not see similar outcomes.
The first complaint against Rowe dates from 2012, when an anonymous citizen called the sheriff's office to report Rowe's patrol car tailgating another vehicle on I-405. According to the complaint, the caller said "he observed this driving for approx 1 mile" during which time Rowe's car "was consistently within one vehicle length of the vehicle in front at speeds at/around 60 mph."
The 2012 incident was referred to Rowe's supervisor, who issued Rowe a reminder that it's sheriff's office policy for deputies to drive safely.
A year later, Sarah Dotson, a mother with her 13-year-old daughter in the car, told the King County Sheriff's Office that Rowe tailgated her early in the morning for nearly two miles before pulling her over and yelling at her for her "driving skills." Dotson wrote that she assumed Rowe pulled her over because she may have backed out of her driveway as he was rounding her corner and she didn't see his headlights. In her statement, she said she felt Rowe acted "out of personal anger."
Sergeant Marcus Williams, the official responding to the complaint, told the woman that Deputy Rowe offered a "vastly" different story. "Deputy Rowe felt his contact with you was positive and that you appeared to be satisfied with his explanation for contact," Williams wrote.
Dotson disagreed. Nevertheless, Sergeant Williams logged the incident as a "non-investigatory matter."
"I truly thought I was being followed by someone with road rage!" Dotson told Sergeant Williams by e-mail. "I have been pulled over 1 time in my 22 years of driving, so this was pretty upsetting for me! I wouldn't have said anything had I not felt the Deputy wasn't in the wrong at all that day."
In 2014, another complainant told the King County Sheriff's Office that Rowe sped and drove erratically on I-405 before pulling him over and verbally abusing him in front of his family. Enayet Aziz said that after he passed Rowe's patrol vehicle on the highway, Rowe's car inched up to the back of his car and backed away a couple of times before stopping Aziz.
"Mr. Aziz related that Deputy Rich Rowe made contact with him at the driver's side window and seemed to be angry at him, stating that [sic] about driving too fast," the investigating sergeant's memo notes. While Aziz told the sergeant that Rowe hadn't used any profanity toward him and didn't intimidate him, the memo notes Aziz felt Rowe was disrespectful and "trying to humiliate him in front of his wife and adult daughter."
As in motorcyclist Randall's case, Rowe did not issue Aziz a traffic citation. But his complaint, unlike Dotson's, was referred to a supervisor for action.
Complaint classifications are divided into three categories in the sheriff's office: non-investigatory matters (NIMs), supervisory action logs (SALs), and inquiries. NIMs result in the lowest form of disciplinary actions taken—none, effectively. Inquiries result in investigations. SALs fall in the middle; they're considered minor performance issues or policy violations that are referred to supervisors.
Deborah Jacobs, the director of King County's Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), would not comment on the specifics of the complaints against Detective Richard Rowe. Jacobs did note, however, that complaint classifications are an area of significant concern for her office.
"Classifications are where, if somebody wanted to minimize a complaint, this is where it would happen," Jacobs said. "Classifications in other oversight offices have been thought of as where police can hide the ball."
Of the 700 complaints that Jacobs's office receives a year, about a third are classified as NIMs, another third as SALs, and the final third as inquiries. In April, the King County Council passed legislation that would allow OLEO to make classification recommendations—in other words, allow some civilian input on how complaints against officers are dealt with—but since then, the legislation has been tied up in collective bargaining with the King County Police Officers Guild.
Steve Eggert, the guild's president, did not return a request for comment.
Jacobs has also hired an outside consultant to report on the state of the complaint classification process at the King County Sheriff's Office. Jacobs said that the report from attorney Eric Daigle, a former detective with the Connecticut State Police, should be ready for presentation to law enforcement within the next couple of months.
"A civilian eye on classifications, as well as policy improvements so that all classifications are done similarly based on similar understanding—those are the kinds of changes we'll be looking for as that report comes out," Jacobs said.
The investigation as to whether Rowe used excessive force when he stopped Randall last month is ongoing.