By Lloyd Dolha
A Vancouver First Nations group was appalled to learn that a Seattle police officer will not face criminal charges in the shooting death of a Dididaht carver in Seattle in August 2010. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council was shocked and dismayed to learn that the King’s County Prosecutor’s office will not bring charges against Seattle police officer Ian Birk for the shooting death of John T. Williams.
The 27-year-old officer fatally shot Williams four times on August 30, 2010 at 4:12 p.m. on a busy Seattle street—the entire encounter lasting only 14 seconds. Birk fired his weapon five times within a few short seconds of calling to the intoxicated carver to drop the knife he was using to carve a block of wood. The encounter was partially captured on video from Officer Birk’s patrol car. It showed Williams walking across the crosswalk in front of the patrol car holding a block of wood that he was occasionally jabbing at with a knife. After Williams walked out of the camera’s frame, the video shows Birk getting out of his patrol car and gesturing at Williams to stop. Birk yelled, “hey, hey, hey” as he gestured. Birk walked out of the frame and could be heard yelling “Put the knife down!” three times and was followed by the sound of five shots. “This decision is hugely significant to us, with so many Nuu-chah-nulth people living in Seattle,” said Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council vice-president Priscilla Sabbas–Watts. “Birk and the Seattle Police Department must be held accountable.”
In a statement, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterburg said Washington state law gives police officers more protection against criminal prosecution for homicide than it gives ordinary citizens. It directs that police officers who use deadly force when confronting and armed suspect shall not be prosecuted for any crime as long as they are acting in good faith and without malice. “I understand the concerns of many community members who are calling for accountability from this officer… But I must follow the law of the state… and will not file criminal charges,” said Satterburg.
The investigation found there wasn’t enough evidence against Birk to convict him. But Deputy Chief Clark Kimmerer said it also found Birk shouldn’t have pulled out his gun, because he wasn’t in any danger when he shot Williams and said if Birk felt Williams was dangerous, he should have called for backup. The Seattle Police Department’s own Firearms Review Board concluded that Birk’s shooting of Williams was not justified. Seattle Police Chief John Diaz called the shooting “egregious” and the described the board’s review of the incident the most “damning” in three decades. The review called the shooting “unjustified and outside of policy, tactics and training… as a result of these findings and recommendations, Officer Birk must remain stripped of all Seattle police powers and authority.” Birk resigned from the force on February 16th.
“Ian Birk did not act in good faith when he engaged John T. Williams,” said Sabbas-Watts. “John was visibly a carver. He was carrying a legal knife and a block of wood. He was not menacing; not threatening the public in any way. So why was Birk so quick to fire five shots from his gun?”