Within minutes of fatally shooting a First Nations totem carver at a busy downtown intersection, Officer Ian Birk was required to immediately answer a series of questions designed to preserve evidence, protect public safety and establish key facts.
Within minutes of fatally shooting a First Nations totem carver at a busy downtown intersection, Seattle police Officer Ian Birk was required to immediately answer up to 11 questions designed to preserve evidence, protect public safety and establish key facts.
The questioning by a supervisor fell under a policy adopted by the department last year to gain crucial information at the scene of officer-involved shootings.
While the policy has been invoked in several police shootings — involving fatalities and injuries — its use during the Aug. 30 shooting of John T. Williams could prove important as Birk’s actions have come under growing scrutiny and criticism.
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Williams, 50, was shot when he failed to obey three commands from Birk to drop a knife he was carrying, according to police. Critics have said that Birk overreacted, without considering other options such as calling for backup to help deal with Williams, a public inebriate who had told people he was deaf in one ear.
What the initial questions didn’t reveal is Birk’s reasoning for the shooting. Under the policy, officers are not asked that question until later, when they are questioned by homicide detectives and compelled to provide a written statement within three days of the shooting.
Birk ultimately reported that he felt his safety was in jeopardy, according to the department.
Even without immediately obtaining that piece of information, the initial questioning allows other officers to take immediate actions if necessary to protect the public and provides investigators with a framework in their effort to unravel what happened.
The answers can be used only for the Police Department’s investigative purposes, not for any criminal prosecution, which is also the case for an officer’s later, more detailed statement.
The questionnaire was added to the department’s policy overseeing officers’ discharge of firearms in July 2009 as part of contract negotiations. When an officer shoots someone, a supervisor is required to immediately fill out a card called a Public Safety Statement.
“This is a compelled statement,” the form says, with the word compelled underlined.
“The main reason for this is just what the policy says — it’s a public-safety order,” said Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer, who chairs the department’s Firearms Review Board. “The idea is that the officer is compelled to immediately answer a series of questions: where his rounds went, whether other shots were fired, whether there are other suspects and the like.”
But it serves another purpose as well, Kimerer said. It allows the department to “freeze” the scene — obtain the involved officers’ statements about where people were standing, the number of shots fired and other facts that can be used to test the credibility of witness and officer statements later.
Based on the best recollection of the officer, the supervisor must write down the answers verbatim, then immediately alert others of any public-safety issues and provide the card to the first arriving homicide supervisor.
The officer is first asked the direction in which he fired the gunshots, and the direction of any shots fired by one or more suspects.
Next, the officer is asked if anyone is hurt, the location of the injured, followed by the descriptions of any suspects who are at large.
If a suspect is at large, the officer is asked to provide the direction of travel, the amount of time the suspect has been gone, the type of weapons the suspect might be carrying and any other safety risks.
The officer is then asked if any evidence needs to be protected, whether there are witnesses, and where they are.
At the conclusion of the questioning, the officer is ordered not to discuss the incident with anyone, including supervisors, until assigned investigators arrive. The officer is given the right to discuss the incident with a legal representative of the police union.
Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, said the protocol was negotiated with the department to obtain immediate factual information, not the “why” behind the officer’s action.
Birk, 27, who has been with the department for two years, has provided a full statement to the department on the shooting, said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, the department’s chief spokesman.
The shooting will be reviewed by the Firearms Review Board, and is expected to be the subject of an inquest proceeding in which a jury will decide if Birk acted properly.
After the inquest, the King County Prosecutor’s Office would review the findings to determine if Birk acted criminally.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or email@example.com.