Seattle police Officer Ian Birk resigned Wednesday, hours after department brass released a scathing report of his fatal shooting of woodcarver John T. Williams. However, he will not face criminal charges.
Seattle police Officer Ian Birk bowed Wednesday to what appeared to be his certain firing, resigning hours after department brass released a scathing report of his fatal shooting of woodcarver John T. Williams.
Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz had strongly signaled that Birk would be fired in a matter of weeks, despite the announcement earlier Wednesday by King County prosecutors that they wouldn’t seek murder or manslaughter charges against the 27-year-old officer.
Birk’s resignation capped an extraordinary day that began with King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg explaining his decision to not charge Birk, triggering outrage among members of Williams’ family, and ended with protests over the prosecutor’s decision.
Between them was a Police Department news conference that featured a blistering review of the Williams shooting, which the department’s Firearms Review Board found unjustified.
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“John T. Williams did not pose a threat of serious harm to the officers or others,” Diaz said, adding that Birk did not follow training and department policy when he used deadly force.
Birk’s departure resolved one issue in the city’s most controversial police shooting in years, but not the widespread anger and distrust that it has generated.
McGinn acknowledged the deeper problem at a City Hall news conference punctuated by angry outbursts from the audience.
McGinn said the city needs to repair the damage spawned by the shooting and other controversial confrontations between officers and minorities.
He bluntly called on the police union to “come to the table,” saying it needs to be less defensive over issues such as race and social-justice training.
McGinn said that any attempt to change the culture and practices of the Police Department would “take a long time” but that he and Diaz had put in place changes, including reviews of officer training.
He said the current review of the department’s practices by the U.S. Department of Justice would give the city some answers and called on police to shift the emphasis from “when we can use force” to “when we should use force.”
Despite Birk’s resignation, police officials said the internal investigation of the officer would be completed, with a finding on the appropriate disciplinary action. Depending on the finding, it could prevent Birk from becoming a police officer elsewhere in the state.
In addition, federal prosecutors have been monitoring the case to determine whether Birk should be criminally charged with violating Williams’ civil rights.
No evidence to charge Birk
Satterberg began the day declaring at a news conference that state law prevents him from charging Birk in the Aug. 30 shooting of Williams, 50, a street inebriate and member of Canada’s First Nations.
Satterberg said he’s troubled by some of Birk’s actions, including his quick decision to fire but that there’s no evidence Birk acted with malice or criminal intent, elements required to bring a charge.
In carefully measured words, Satterberg said he determined that Birk believed Williams was a threat when he shot him near downtown Seattle.
Satterberg said he reviewed Birk’s testimony in last month’s fact-finding inquest into the shooting and the jury’s mixed findings.
Birk “committed serious tactical errors” in the confrontation, Satterberg said, but state law gives police more protection than citizens against prosecution in use of deadly force. He said there was no evidence to “overcome” the law.
He acknowledged that reaction to the shooting has sparked a “deep divide” in the community as well as in the Police Department.
“But we do not, and we legally cannot, put police officers on trial for murder or send them to prison for exercising their discretion to use deadly force in good faith and without malice, however tragic the outcome may be,” Satterberg said.
Diaz, during the Police Department news conference, followed with a promise to reach a disciplinary finding in the shooting by the middle of next month.
Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer said Birk would have the opportunity to make a statement to the Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability and to meet personally with the police chief before Diaz made a disciplinary decision.
Diaz stopped short of saying he planned to fire Birk, saying he wanted to carefully follow employment rules. But Diaz said he needed to reach a decision “without a moment’s delay.”
“The city needs this. This family needs this,” Diaz said.
McGinn, during his own news conference, expressed frustration with the length of time it has taken to hold Birk accountable.
“I know the public finds the lack of action frustrating,” McGinn said. “So do I. The laws that govern this issue place greater value on the officer’s due-process rights, and rights in his job, than the public’s expectation that improper use of force will be swiftly and appropriately dealt with.”
Violations of policy
The shooting occurred after Birk saw Williams cross the street holding a piece of wood and a knife with a 3-inch blade. He used the knife for carving, his family said.
Birk got out of his patrol car and followed Williams onto the sidewalk. Birk shouted at Williams to get his attention and ordered him three times to put down the knife. Birk fired when Williams didn’t respond, hitting him four times.
Birk testified at the inquest that 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 Williams “still had the knife out and [was in] a very confrontational posture” when Birk opened fire.
Two witnesses contradicted Birk, saying they didn’t see Williams do anything threatening.
Williams’ knife was found in the closed position after the shooting.
Jurors unanimously found that Williams was carrying an open knife when first seen by Birk. But four said “no” and four said “unknown” when asked if the blade was extended when Birk fired.
Police officials said they found clear violations of department policies on Birk’s part when he confronted Williams and opened fire in about four seconds.
The Firearms Review Board concluded Birk didn’t properly identify himself as a police officer and acted too quickly. The board also determined that Birk didn’t appropriately assess the situation, including options such as taking cover.
The board’s four voting members unanimously determined the shooting was “outside of [department] policy, tactics and training,” the board said in a report to Diaz.
Kimerer said “the conclusions and the fact pattern that we determined are among the most egregious failings that I have seen.”
“These are, in my own experience, very profound findings. I have never authored a final report of this kind in my 30 years on the Seattle Police Department,” he said, adding “when we undertook the analysis of this situation, it was heart-wrenching because what we were seeing was an outcome that could have been avoided.”
After Birk’s resignation, McGinn issued a written statement, saying Birk apparently “saw the writing on the wall.”
“He could read the same Firearms Review Board report that the rest of us did,” McGinn said.
“A good young officer”
Birk, who joined the department in July 2008, has been on paid administrative leave since the shooting.
Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, said Wednesday that he and guild attorneys met with Birk for several hours over two days, discussing the officer’s options.
“It was obvious they were going to try and terminate him,” so the discussions included talk of Birk’s appeal rights and the possibility he could be reinstated, O’Neill said, noting that process could have taken 10 to 11 months to complete.
Ultimately, Birk made his decision based “on what’s right for him and his family,” O’Neill said.
“I didn’t know him before this, but I know him now, and he is a good person. He is a good young man; he was a good young officer,” O’Neill said. “Could he have done things differently? I’m sure he’s the first to admit he wishes the outcome was different.”
O’Neill said he doesn’t know if Birk wants to be a police officer in another jurisdiction, but said there are no grounds for Birk to be decommissioned as a law-enforcement officer.
Joe Hawe, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, said Wednesday that if the Police Department sends over its findings it will be up to the commission to review the case and do its own investigation.
If the commission, after a hearings process, determines Birk should be decertified, “he would not be able to be a police officer in the state of Washington,” Hawe said.
“Getting away with it”
Satterberg’s announcement was met with widespread anger. Protesters gathered at City Hall and later near Westlake Center. Later in the evening, several hundred marched to Boren Avenue and Howell Street, where Williams was shot.
Patricia Ann Wilson, a local artist, carried a piece of artwork as she marched, as a tribute to the man she’d once bought a carving from.
“I feel very connected to him,” she said, adding that Willaims’ death offered one purpose: “To show us what’s wrong with the police.”
A group of the protesters broke from the crowd at Boren and Howell to head to the East Precinct on Capitol Hill, but police closed the road a block from the precinct. The crowd later regrouped at the Westlake Center, where a protester, Greg West, 49, of Seattle, was nudged by a passing car.
He said he was not injured and declined medical treatment. Most protesters had left the intersection by about 9:30 p.m.
“It is like he is getting away with murder,” said Nancy Williams, one of John Williams’ sisters in Vancouver, B.C. “He’s getting away with it. He is going to have a smirk on his face and he is going to go crazy with that gun, thinking he can get away with it. It really ticks me off. It shouldn’t end that way.”
Attorneys for the family called Satterberg’s decision “wrong about the facts, wrong about the law and wrong as a matter of public policy.”
But Williams’ brother, Harvey Williams, 58, said he had already made up his own mind to forgive Birk for the shooting, for the sake of his own healing. He said he wasn’t surprised by Wednesday’s announcement.
“I didn’t really expect anything to happen. I didn’t expect charges. The laws protect anyone in office. Nothing has changed,” he said.
He said Williams’ family plans to file a civil suit.
Seattle Times staff reporters Lynda V. Mapes, Lynn Thompson, Sara Jean Green, Christine Clarridge and Olivia Bobrowsky contributed to this story, which includes information from Times archives.
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