Police have "a lot more questions than answers" after Monday's fatal shooting of a man by a West Precinct patrol officer, Chief John Diaz said Tuesday.
Seattle police Tuesday offered different details of Monday’s fatal shooting of a homeless man by a patrol officer, with commanders saying they now don’t know if the man advanced toward the officer with a knife as police originally reported.
The man ignored three commands to drop the knife as the West Precinct officer stood about nine feet away, leading the officer to believe his safety was in jeopardy, according to top police officials.
At a news briefing Tuesday afternoon, Police Chief John Diaz said he has “a lot more questions than answers” after Officer Ian Birk fired four rounds at John T. Williams, a wood carver who had a folding knife with a 3-inch blade and a piece of wood in his hands.
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Williams, 50, was identified Tuesday by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Diaz pledged a complete and transparent investigation by homicide detectives, to be followed by a firearms review board chaired by Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer. The board will determine whether Birk, 27, adhered to department policy.
Diaz also said an inquest hearing would be held to determine what happened around 4:15 p.m. Monday when Birk, with the department for two years, confronted Williams at the intersection of Boren Avenue and Howell Street.
Williams was a member of the Chief Seattle Club in Pioneer Square, a day center and social-service agency that provides hot meals, health care and other help for Native Americans and First Nations people of Canada, according to an employee of the club.
Acting Deputy Chief Nick Metz said Tuesday that Birk was stopped in his car at a red light as he headed south on Boren when he spotted Williams walking in a crosswalk “carrying a wooden board and a knife.”
“He could see the blade of the knife and the man was doing something to the board,” Metz said.
Birk activated his emergency lights, which automatically switched on his in-car video camera, Metz said. The officer also activated a recording device, Metz said.
The video, which hasn’t been made public, shows Williams crossing the street in front of Birk and, moments later, the officer crossing in front of his car to the northwest corner of Boren and Howell, Metz said. The camera did not capture video of the shooting, but Birk can be heard on an audio recording ordering Williams three times to drop the knife, he said.
Witnesses also have reported hearing the officer’s commands, according to Diaz and Metz.
But people who knew Williams say he couldn’t hear out of one ear and wonder if that may have played a role in his failure to comply with the officer’s commands.
Metz said about a minute passed between the time Birk saw Williams crossing the street and the time the fatal shots were fired.
Birk, who was not equipped with a Taser, was nine to 10 feet away from Williams when he fired four rounds from his service weapon, Metz said.
Williams apparently had turned toward the officer before he fired, but police are still trying to determine if he had moved toward Birk before the shooting, Metz said.
On Monday, police had said that Williams was sitting on a short wall by the intersection, whittling with a knife, when Birk approached him. A police spokeswoman said then that Williams had advanced toward the officer with the knife in his hand.
Metz said Williams’ folding knife, which was open, is considered “a deadly weapon.” He said Birk told investigators he “does believe his safety was in danger.”
Asked why Birk didn’t call for backup until after shooting Williams, Metz responded: “That’s one of the questions we want answered.”
Williams, like many other members of the Chief Seattle Club, is a carver, and it is not unusual for them to carry their tools when they are walking around town, according to the club employee. Williams also had an extensive criminal record, including a felony conviction last year for indecent exposure.
Birk has been placed on routine paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.
One witness who contacted The Seattle Times has questioned the department’s version of events and said the man may not have even realized the officer was trying to get his attention before shots rang out.
Amber Maurina, 28, said she was driving home Monday afternoon from a doctor’s appointment and was stopped at a red light at Boren and Howell. She said she was facing north on Boren and saw the officer stop his patrol car, which was facing south on Boren, and get out.
Maurina said a tall, scruffy-looking man was standing with his back to her. She said she never saw the man’s hands but thought he might be urinating or fumbling around in a fanny pack. Maurina said she watched the officer approach the man and saw him mouthing something to the man, who did not appear to respond.
“His body stance did not look threatening at all,” she said of the man. “I could only see the gentleman’s back, and he didn’t look aggressive at all. He didn’t even look up at the officer.”
The officer approached the man, but was still “at least two car-lengths” away, Maurina said, when she heard the officer say, “Hey, hey, hey,” followed by gunshots.
“I watched him kind of slowly, sort of gracefully and elegantly, fall to the ground,” Maurina said of the man. “From what I saw, it did not look right.”
Diaz said Tuesday that police are asking that other witnesses come forward.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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Seattle Times staff reporters Carly Flandro and Lynda V. Mapes and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.