The city has agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle claims brought by the family of John T. Williams, the First Nations woodcarver killed by a police officer.
Ending one chapter of a shooting that jolted the Seattle Police Department, the city has agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle claims brought by the family of John T. Williams, the First Nations woodcarver killed by a police officer.
The Aug. 30 shooting of Williams, a chronic street inebriate, was found to be unjustified by the Seattle Police Department’s Firearms Review Board and led to the resignation of the officer, Ian Birk, earlier this year.
The agreement, announced Friday by the City Attorney’s Office, followed a confidential mediation in which the city considered claims raised by Williams’ mother and representatives of his estate.
No formal claim or lawsuit was filed by the family, although the family was prepared to file a federal suit.
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“This is one step toward justice, but it is only a step,” Rick Williams, a brother of John T. Williams and administrator of his estate, said in a prepared statement. “Nothing can make up for the loss of my brother.”
Williams’ mother, Ida Edward, of Vancouver, B.C., stands to collect the entire settlement. The city and Birk made no admissions of liability under the settlement, which releases both from further civil litigation.
Birk, 28, resigned Feb. 16, hours after the Police Department released the scathing findings of the firearms board, which concluded he acted outside the department’s “policy, tactics and training” when he shot Williams four times at the intersection of Boren Avenue and Howell Street near downtown.
After Birk resigned, Police Chief John Diaz formally fired him for misconduct.
On the day Birk quit, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced he would not bring criminal charges against Birk, who joined the department in 2008.
Satterberg said state law prohibited him from filing charges because Birk believed Williams, who was carrying a knife, posed a threat. Satterberg said there was no evidence Birk acted with malice, noting that police officers are given more protection against criminal prosecution for homicide than ordinary citizens.
Williams’ family has asked the King County Superior Court judges to convene a citizen grand jury to consider whether Birk should be criminally charged. The court is reviewing the request, which was filed March 16.
Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal review of the shooting to determine whether Birk should be charged with violating Williams’ civil rights. The shooting also was one of several high-profile incidents in the past year that prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil-rights investigation into the Police Department’s use of force and treatment of minorities.
Under the agreement with Williams’ family, the city will pay $1.25 million to his estate, where it will be held in escrow until issues involving the distribution of funds are resolved.
An additional $250,000 will be placed into a trust for Edward. She and her family are members of the Ditidaht tribe, part of Canada’s Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations.
A special representative will be appointed to represent other potential heirs, although none has been found or come forward, the City Attorney’s Office said in a statement.
If no heir is found other than Edward, the remainder of the settlement funds will go to her and not to Rick Williams or other siblings, said Connie Sue Manos Martin, an attorney for the family and the estate.
She said a draft of a federal lawsuit was presented to the city as part of the mediation.
Edward, 76, speaking by telephone from the nursing home where she lives in Vancouver, B.C., said of the payment: “Well, it seems like a funny thing. My son gets shot, and I get the money. I’m hurt by it. Because my son is underground.
“He had to be underground for me to be given a treat. Although he always gave me treats when he was alive. He has given me a bigger treat. John was always treating me. So he treated me with his life. He died and he gave me some money.”
She said she misses her son. “Not one night goes by without me calling out and talking to him, I say, ‘Good night, baby.’ I say that to all my children.”
Asked how she feels about the settlement, Edward had a two-word answer. “It hurts.”
According to the city attorney’s statement, the mediation followed “positive meetings” aimed at building trust between Seattle police and the Native-American community.
“The parties are pleased to be able to resolve the case without protracted litigation that could have incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees,” the statement said.
Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for City Attorney Pete Holmes, said she couldn’t discuss what occurred in mediation.
“I can say that city attorneys looked at cases around the country and the $1.5 million was within the range the City expected to settle for,” she said in an email.
The shooting occurred after Birk, while driving his patrol car, saw Williams cross the street holding a piece of wood and the knife, which had a 3-inch blade. Williams used the knife for carving, his family said.
Birk got out of his car and followed Williams onto the sidewalk. He shouted at Williams to get his attention and ordered him three times to put down the knife. About four seconds after the first command, Birk fired when Williams didn’t respond.
At a court inquest into the shooting in January, Birk testified he was initially concerned because Williams showed signs of impairment while carrying a knife. When he sought to question Williams, he said, Williams turned toward him with a “very stern, very serious, very confrontational look.”
Birk told jurors he fired because Williams “still had the knife out” and was in “a very confrontational posture.”
Two witnesses contradicted Birk, saying they didn’t see Williams do anything threatening.
The eight-member jury reached mixed findings on the shooting. Four of eight jurors found that Birk wasn’t facing an imminent threat when he fatally shot Williams, and that he didn’t give Williams sufficient time to put down the knife.
One juror found that Birk faced a threat and gave Williams sufficient time; three others answered “unknown.”
Four jurors determined Birk believed he was in danger when he encountered Williams, while four others answered “unknown.”
Williams’ knife was found in the closed position after the shooting.
The firearms board concluded Birk didn’t properly identify himself as a police officer and acted too quickly. It also determined Birk didn’t appropriately assess the situation, including options such as taking cover.
When the shooting findings were released, Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer, who authored the report, said Birk’s actions were “among the most egregious failings that I have seen.”
Weeks after the shooting, the department took steps to bolster its training and community relations.
This story includes material from Seattle Time archives.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org