The U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle explained why civil-rights criminal charges won't be filed against Ian Birk, the ex-SPD officer who fatally shot woodcarver John T. Williams in 2010.
Federal prosecutors will not charge former Seattle police Officer Ian Birk in the 2010 shooting death of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams.
After what was described as a “comprehensive and independent” investigation — which sources have confirmed involved a grand jury — the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI concluded that the “evidence was insufficient, beyond a reasonable doubt, that [Birk] acted willfully and with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced last April that it would review the Williams shooting after King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said that state law precluded him from charging Birk because it required proof that Birk acted with malice.
Federal prosecutors faced a similarly high legal standard for proving that Birk acted willfully and with the intent to violate Williams’ civil rights.
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Prosecutors broke the news to the Williams family in a lengthy face-to-face meeting Friday morning, according to Seattle attorney Tim Ford, who represented the family in a civil case against the city and was present at the meeting.
The decision, Ford said, “is a great disappointment to his family,” which had hoped that a jury would have the opportunity to hear the case. He said the Williams family, including John’s brother, a totem carver in Seattle, “wished they hadn’t set the bar so high.”
One irony that came out of the meeting, Ford said, was that prosecutors were concerned that Birk would use the department’s training as a defense. The DOJ, after an 11-month investigation, concluded last month that Seattle officers engaged in an unconstitutional “pattern and practice” of using excessive force and cited the department’s training as inadequate.
“Basically, he would have been able to claim that he was trained to fear for his life when no real threat existed,” Ford said.
The federal investigation examined whether Birk violated the civil rights of Williams when he shot and killed him on a downtown city sidewalk.
Williams, who was a well-known public inebriate and hard of hearing, did not respond to Birk’s repeated demands that he drop a knife he was carrying. A department review of the shooting found that Birk acted outside the department’s “policy, tactics and training” when he shot Williams four times, just seconds after getting out of his police vehicle.
The criminal investigation into Williams’ death was separate from a probe into the Seattle Police Department (SPD) by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, which concluded last month that the SPD has a “pattern and practice” of using illegal, excessive force. Most of the victims, the DOJ said, were people of color, the mentally ill and those under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The DOJ concluded there was not sufficient data to determine whether the department engages in biased policing, but said the information it was able to gather was troubling.
Satterberg announced last February that the state could not charge Birk because the law required prosecutors to show that the officer acted with malice and without good faith. Birk, 28, who had been an officer for two years, resigned from the department after Satterberg’s announcement. The city of Seattle settled with Williams’ family for $1.5 million.
Williams’ shooting resulted in public outrage and united community groups to demand accountability from the department. There had been earlier videotaped incidents — an officer slugging a teenager during a jaywalking incident, for instance — but none reverberated in the community like the patrol-car dash-cam video of Williams ambling across the intersection in front of Birk’s car, a folding knife and board in his hands.
Birk was seen crossing in front of the car in pursuit, his weapon drawn, then a series of shots are heard a few seconds later.
The department was further criticized when initial statements made at the scene, that Williams had advanced on the officer, turned out to be untrue. A King County inquest jury was divided on whether Birk felt he was threatened when he fired.
Birk could not be reached for comment, and the Seattle Police Department said Friday it would not have any comment.
However, Seattle attorney Ted Buck — who represented Birk during the King County inquest hearing — praised the decision and said it would come as a relief to street cops.
“Had Birk been charged, the effect would have been that you’d be telling officers on the streets that they can’t do their job,” Buck said.
The shooting was pivotal in the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union’s decision to send a letter in late 2010, signed by 34 Seattle-area community groups, asking the DOJ to investigate the SPD.
Doug Honig, a spokesman for the ACLU Seattle Office, said Friday that, regardless of the charging outcome, the shooting “highlighted the need for better training so that police don’t use deadly force except when it is absolutely necessary.”
“It crystallized the problem and training and culture in the department that have been raised by others for years,” he said.
A report on the Justice Department’s investigation, issued last month, said the illegal use-of-force issues it found were exacerbated by the fact that nearly a third of Seattle’s officers had less than three years on the force.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org