The police chief of Snohomish was replaced on Monday following a week of mounting tension over how he handled a rumored but unrealized threat that antifa activists planned to riot and damage storefronts in the community.

A divide in Snohomish, a city of 10,000 near the Cascade foothills, had come to light early last week as citizens armed with semi-automatic weapons and displaying a Confederate flag gathered in the city’s historic downtown.

Some clashed with protesters who have been holding nightly demonstrations against racial injustice and the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The armed demonstrators included members of right-wing groups, according to interviews with group members, and multiple witnesses said many people had been drinking while carrying weapons on May 31.

The next night, violence broke out when a man demonstrators believed was linked to the armed group was shown on video throwing punches and striking at least one teenager who had joined a protest against police misconduct, and another protester said he was pushed to the ground where two people then choked and hit him.

Snohomish Police Chief Keith Rogers. (Snohomish County)
Snohomish Police Chief Keith Rogers. (Snohomish County)

Keith Rogers, now the former police chief of Snohomish, faced steep criticism for not taking the armed crowd’s presence more seriously. At a recent Snohomish City Council meeting, he had described the evening as “festive.”

“The current events in Snohomish did play a role in the decision between the city and the sheriff’s office,” said Courtney O’Keefe, spokeswoman for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s office, which contracts with the city for police services. “The sheriff and mayor thought that at this time in history it would be best to find a replacement police chief just due to the nature of recent events.”

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Rogers will be reassigned to a new position within the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office as a result, said O’Keefe. The county and city have partnered since 2012 to provide law enforcement services in the city, popular with tourists for its antique shops.

Rogers, a lieutenant, will retain his current rank within the Sheriff’s Office, though specifics about his new assignment haven’t been determined yet, O’Keefe said. His replacement, Snohomish County Sheriff Capt. Robert Palmer, will serve as interim police chief for about three months, the city said in a statement on its website. The city and the Sheriff’s Office will work together on a permanent replacement.

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney and Snohomish Mayor John Kartak praised Rogers in their announcement of his reassignment, with the sheriff calling him a tremendous leader during his three years as police chief. Kartak said Rogers had focused on homeless outreach, community policing programs and other initiatives.

“Chief Rogers has provided outstanding leadership and exemplary service to the city of Snohomish and will be deeply missed,” Kartak said.

A week ago, Kartak told The Seattle Times in an interview that the threat on social media that protesters with antifa — short for “anti-fascists,” and used to describe far-left activists known to confront neo-Nazis and far-right groups — were coming to town was considered viable, even though the Police Department had first described as a rumor on Facebook on May 31.

Some 50 police officers had been staged at an emergency operations center in Snohomish “ready to converge if necessary” in response to any attempts at destruction, said Kartak. 

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He also said the city had positioned officers on the roof of City Hall, which is around the corner from where the crowd proclaiming to protect Snohomish had gathered. 

Kartak wrote on the city’s website that over 500 people had come together in town to deter “violence and vandalism.” Kartak said he saw “one Confederate flag on a truck,” though he could tell from photographs that there was more than one Confederate flag at one point.

He called the flag’s presence “really unfortunate” and “sickening,” while criticizing portrayals of his town as racist. 

The group Snohomish for Equity, which had helped organized anti-racism protests in town on May 30 and again Friday, said replacing Rogers represented city action at a time when many in the community, especially protesters in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, are calling for change. In a statement, the group said it looked forward to working with the interim chief.

The scene in Snohomish was one of a handful across the country last week in rural areas, where local leaders raised alarm that antifa activists were targeting their communities.  The threats in Snohomish and elsewhere, however, did not materialize.

Seattle Times staff reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report.