Seattle police Officer Ian Birk testified Tuesday that he felt threatened and feared for his safety when he fatally shot woodcarver John T. Williams last summer.
Speaking clearly and calmly, Seattle police Officer Ian Birk testified Tuesday that he fatally shot John T. Williams because there was “no doubt in my mind that an attack was coming.”
“I was left with no reasonable alternative but to fire,” said Birk, who told an inquest jury that Williams, a woodcarver and member of Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations in British Columbia, had threatened him with a knife.
Birk’s 1 ½ hours of testimony marked the first time he has discussed the Aug. 30 shooting publicly. Jurors will consider Birk’s testimony, along with that of other witnesses, in reaching findings that could shed light on whether the officer acted properly.
Birk told jurors that he believed Williams was impaired when he initially saw him carrying a knife on a Seattle street. “The way he was carrying himself and his posture indicated he was in some sort of altered state,” Birk testified during the second day of the fact-finding hearing.
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Williams’ appearance “along with the knife in his hand made me concerned he might make someone uncomfortable or be a threat,” the officer, 27, said of his decision to get out of his car and confront Williams.
Williams’ blood-alcohol level was measured during his autopsy at 0.18 percent, above the 0.08 percent level a driver is considered to be legally drunk.
Birk’s eyes filled with tears as he told the jury about his thoughts in the half-hour after the shooting at Boren Avenue and Howell Street.
He said he realized he was in a “difficult, tough situation,” thought about his family and considered the possibility he might not have lived to see his sister’s wedding in four days.
“It was difficult, very difficult,” Birk told the packed courtroom.
Birk made no mention of what he thought about killing Williams, although he testified that he initially had hoped to resolve the encounter peacefully.
Birk told jurors he had loudly called out to Williams, but Williams kept walking, which he took as the first indicator of a potential threat.
Williams then stopped, turned his head and had a “very stern, very serious, very confrontational look on his face,” Birk said. “He still had the knife out and [was in] a very confrontational posture.”
Williams displayed “pre-attack indicators” that included a clenched jaw, furrowed brows and a fixed “thousand-yard stare,” Birk testified.
Describing Williams as defiant and aggressive, Birk said Williams lowered himself. “If he had had an opportunity to take a step in my direction there was not much I could have done,” Birk told jurors.
Birk said he ordered Williams to put down the knife. Audio from Birk’s patrol car shows he had told Williams, 50, three times to drop the knife and then fired his pistol about four seconds after the first command.
From a distance of about nine feet, Williams was struck by four bullets on the right side of his body, indicating he was not facing Birk.
Asked by King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Melinda Young why he fired in such a short time, Birk said it might not seem like a long time, but “to me it felt like a very long time.”
“There was no time to wonder what he was going to do,” Birk said.
Birk said he didn’t retreat because that would require him to take his eyes off Williams and put himself at risk. He also testified he was concerned about others in the area during the busy, late-afternoon rush hour.
Birk said he had no explanation why the knife with a 3-inch blade was found on the ground in a closed position.
Asked by his attorney, Ted Buck, why he didn’t just let Williams go, the officer said, “In my mind, this is the exact sort of thing that people expect police to do. … It’s my job when I see someone in front of me, impaired, with a knife in their hand, that I don’t know if it’s legal or not; it’s my job to find out what’s going on.”
Birk conceded he was closer to Williams than he wanted, in part, because he kept moving a few steps as Williams stopped suddenly.
Birk said, as taught, he aimed his gun at Williams’ torso and fired “until I perceived I was no longer in danger.”
Until just before he was sworn in Tuesday, it was unknown whether Birk would testify during the fact-finding inquest or invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The inquest opened Monday and will resume Wednesday morning, with what is expected to be sharp questioning of Birk by Tim Ford, the attorney for the Williams family.
Detective: Birk followed training
Earlier Tuesday, the lead investigator in the case told the inquest jury that Birk followed his training when he fatally shot Williams.
Seattle Police Detective Jeffery Mudd also testified that he would have dropped a knife if ordered to do so at gunpoint by a police officer.
Mudd told jurors that Seattle police officers are trained to treat as an immediate threat anyone standing a short distance away with an edged weapon.
Ford repeatedly questioned Mudd’s impartiality as lead investigator in the case. Under questioning by Ford, Mudd acknowledged that he and Birk belong to the same police union.
Mudd, in response to another question from Ford, also testified that none of the witnesses saw Williams make threatening actions before he was shot. Some witnesses are expected to testify.
How the inquest works
At the end of the inquest, jurors will answer a series of questions, including some likely to touch on whether Williams posed a threat to Birk. A final list of questions won’t be prepared until the jurors hear all evidence, but they won’t ask about Birk’s innocence or guilt.
The jurors’ answers, which do not have to be unanimous, will be considered by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in determining whether a criminal charge against Birk is warranted.
Federal prosecutors also could consider bringing a civil-rights case against Birk. Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Miyake was among the spectators Tuesday watching Birk’s testimony.
Birk previously testified in private, to the Seattle Police Department’s Firearms Review Board. The board and Police Chief John Diaz found in October that the shooting was unjustified under department policies, but won’t make a final determination until after the inquest.
King County District Court Judge Arthur Chapman, who is overseeing the inquest, has ruled the department’s finding inadmissible.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org