Seattle police had repeated contacts with John T. Williams before he was fatally shot by Officer Ian Birk on Aug. 30, with most encounters showing a chronically drunk and belligerent but ultimately compliant Williams, according to evidence gathered by the department.
Seattle police had repeated contacts with John T. Williams before he was fatally shot by Officer Ian Birk on Aug. 30, with most encounters showing a chronically drunk and belligerent — but ultimately compliant — Williams, according to evidence gathered by the department.
Included in the evidence are several dash-cam videos from officers’ patrol cars. They detail numerous encounters with Williams, 50, a First Nations woodcarver and well-known chronic inebriate, in the weeks leading up to his death.
Among the videos are two from incidents the week before his death in which officers commented on Williams’ unusually agitated and aggressive behavior.
The videos and others material related to the shooting were released Monday by the King County Prosecutor’s Office in response to a public-disclosure request.
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The Prosecutor’s Office could present the evidence at a shooting inquest, in which a jury will decide if Birk had a sufficient reason to shoot Williams.
A pre-inquest hearing set for Tuesday has been canceled due to the weather and poor road conditions.
Birk, 27, who joined the department 16 months ago, has said he stopped Williams because he was carrying an open-bladed knife and a piece of wood while walking across the intersection of Boren Avenue and Howell Street during rush hour on Aug. 30. Birk said he fired when Williams didn’t respond to three commands to drop the knife. Williams was struck by bullets four times.
Birk fired four seconds after issuing the first command to drop the knife, Tim Ford, the attorney for the Williams’ family, said last week in court documents after having reviewed an audio recording of the incident.
A dispatch recording has Birk, identifying himself as “David 33,” telling dispatch he was out of service on a “shake” — a pedestrian stop — at Boren and Howell. Twenty-eight seconds later, he announces, “Shots fired … The subject wouldn’t drop the knife.”
A preliminary review of the shooting by the department has determined it was not justified, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Among the evidence the department has relied on is that the knife, found next to Williams’ body, was folded in the closed position.
Seattle police have tried to determine how the knife could have become closed, according to the police documents disclosed Monday. In a dash-cam video taken from Birk’s patrol car, the knife appears to be open as Williams crosses the street, the documents say. That video was not released.
In September, a Seattle police detective determined that the “locking mechanism on the knife does not work properly,” according to a police-log entry.
“The knife closes with only a slight pressure being exerted,” Detective J.D. Mudd wrote in the entry. “The locking mechanism does not need to be disengaged for the knife to close.”
Detectives took the knife to Northwest Laboratories in Seattle for testing, informing the lab that the knife was likely a knock-off made in Taiwan.
Knife’s lock mechanism
In an Oct. 1 report, Northwest Laboratories found the lock mechanism on the knife would “not fully engage when the knife was opened slowly, but when the knife was opened with a little force or quickly the lock mechanism fully engaged most times.”
The lab found some separation of the handle at the end of the knife could be “contributing to the lock mechanism not fully engaging.”
It also noted a “machined angle” on the blade where the lock mechanism engaged, which “may be inhibiting the lock mechanism from fully engaging, as the lock mechanism catches at this ridge.”
“When the lock mechanism did not fully engage, only minimal force was required to close the blade,” the lab report said. “When the lock mechanism is fully engaged, the blade could not be closed.”
Birk’s attorney, Ted Buck, said Monday night that the test results on what he called an “old worn-out knife” open a “spectrum of possibilities” of how the knife became closed.
The police dash-cam videos, which include audio feeds, document six officer encounters with Williams in August. Department memos indicate that there were other encounters — perhaps many others — that month that weren’t videotaped.
Williams appears or sounds intoxicated in each, and in some cases seems disoriented.
In one, recorded about 7:30 p.m. Aug. 26, he proclaims loudly that “I’m a guitarist!” as officers try to politely shoo him away from Dick’s Drive-In on Capitol Hill, where reportedly he’d been harassing customers.
“Why don’t you walk away and not come back?” one officer can be heard asking Williams. “You’re bothering people.”
Williams responds by snarling profanities in a show of temper that clearly surprised one of the officers, identified in documents as Mary Pendergrass, a 22-year department veteran who had a long history of encounters with Williams.
“I’ll kill you! … ” he yells as he walks away.
“He never acts that way to me. Ever!” Pendergrass can be heard saying as she climbs into the patrol car.
In a memo to homicide detectives written two days after the shooting, Officer Daniel Auderer said that he’d had “dozens” of contacts with Williams over the past year.
“Although Williams has always been loud, aggressive and noncompliant to simple commands he would eventually comply,” Auderer wrote.
“As of the last few months I noticed definite degrading of his physical and mental condition,” resulting in “numerous complaints and 911 calls from citizens regarding his behavior.”
Incidents on video
The evening before the incident at Dick’s, officers stopped Williams for walking in traffic at Broadway and East Pine Street. This incident, also captured on video, shows an agitated Williams clenching and unclenching his hands as an officer warns him that the next time he’s either going to jail or Harborview Medical Center.
“I was concerned he was going to become assaultive if he was detained much longer,” wrote Officer Kevin Jones, who was a backup officer on the call.
The other videotaped encounters presented in the evidence package include:
• An Aug. 3 incident in which Williams is sent by ambulance to Harborview after an officer encounters him lying on a Capitol Hill sidewalk just after noon, retching and unable to stand. The officer, who recognizes Williams and calls him by his first name, assures Williams he’s “not in trouble,” and tells him to either sit or “hold onto the wall” so as not to fall and hurt himself while the ambulance is en route.
• On Aug. 5, he’s found in an alley on East Denny Way, near Dick’s. He’s cited for having an open alcohol container and sent on his way.
• On Aug. 12, about 10 p.m., he’s asked to move along after he’s found, on crutches and wearing a hospital armband, rummaging behind a trash bin in an alley off East Olive Way.
He’s respectful, says only “OK,” and leaves.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or email@example.com