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Seattle Police Department Firearms Review Board finds officer's shooting of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams unjustified on February 15, 2011.
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On February 15, 2011, a Seattle Police Department Firearms Review Board rules unanimously that police officer Ian Birk's shooting of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams was unjustified. The shooting occurred on August 30, 2010, when Birk saw Williams on a Seattle street carrying a board and a knife. After telling Williams three times to "Put the knife down!" Birk fired five shots, hitting Williams with four and killing him (dashboard camera video). The board says its factual findings support the "unequivocal" decision that the shooting was "unjustified and outside of policy, tactics and training" (Firearms Review Board). It recommends that Birk be ordered to turn in his badge and gun and be relieved of all police authority. Birk will resign from the force on February 16, 2011, but no criminal charges are filed against him.
An Unjustified Shooting
The Seattle police department's Firearms Review Board was convened after Officer Ian Birk shot and killed Native American woodcarver John T. Williams on a Seattle sidewalk on August 30, 2010. The board, officially No. 10-03, consisted of Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer, Captain Richard Belshay, Captain James Dermody, and Lieutenant Scott Bachler. Citizen observer and attorney Rebecca Roe and a police bargaining-unit observer, Sergeant Rich O'Neill, also attended the hearings, but did not vote on the board's conclusions.
The board first met on October 4, 2010, and visited the site of the shooting. It then heard the reports of the officers who investigated the shooting and took testimony from Birk and from two civilian witnesses. The incident was summarized in the board's report: Birk saw Williams walking across the street holding a knife in one hand and a piece of wood in the other. Birk got out of his patrol car and ordered Williams to put the knife down. When Williams did not comply, Birk said he believed that Williams "might be considering or formulating a plan to close the distance" and "attack" (Firearms Review Board).
The report then quoted the following statement from Birk:
"Knowing that he could attack at any moment, that he had failed to comply with my lawful orders, and that he was so close that he could attack me before I could react, I made the decision to fire. This decision was based on my immediate concern for my own life and the previously mentioned training I have received" (Firearms Review Board).
However, after reviewing all of the testimony and evidence, the board issued a seven-point unanimous finding, which included the following key points:
"4. The officer did not have probable cause to be believe the suspect, if not apprehended, posed a threat of serious harm to the officer or threat of physical harm to others.
"5. Reasonably effective alternatives to the use of a firearm appeared to exist.
"6. Considering the circumstances known to the officer at the time, it would have been a reasonable alternative to allow the suspect to escape without resorting to the use of a firearm.
"7. The actions of the officer contributed to the need to fire" (Firearms Review Board).
The report concluded:
"The totality of these findings leads to an unequivocal conclusion: The use of deadly force by Officer Birk resulting in the death of John T. Williams was unjustified" (Firearms Review Board).
The board recommended that Birk, who had been on administrative leave since the shooting, be relieved of his badge, his weapon, and all police authority pending further action.
The Firearms Review Board met again on February 15, 2011, after a King County inquest jury issued ambiguous findings and the King County Prosecutor's Office decided not to file criminal charges against Birk. The reconvened board reached several "key conclusions," including one that Birk "did not fully assess the potential risks" in contacting Williams; "did not properly identify himself as a Seattle police officer"; and had "initiated, but not fully completed, actions which would have predicated a justifiable use of deadly force" (Firearms Review Board).
The unanimous conclusion of the board remained unchanged and it recommended that Birk "remain stripped of all police authority" (Firearms Review Board). Birk turned in his resignation the next day.
After a fundraising campaign, Williams's brother, Rick Williams, and other Native carvers completed the "John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole." It was then donated to the City of Seattle, installed at Seattle Center February 26, 2012, and became part of the City's public art collection.
Firearms Review Board No. 10-03, Final Report and Recommendations, February 15, 2011, City of Seattle website accessed January 5, 2012 (http://www.seattle.gov/police/OPA/Docs/Birk/Firearms_Review_Board.pdf); Dashboard camera video, available at "The Video: The Shooting of John T. Williams," The Stranger Slog website accessed January 5, 2013 (http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2010/12/17/the-video-the-shooting-of-john-t-williams).
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