John T. Williams, who was fatally shot by a Seattle police officer after being ordered to drop a knife, often had difficulty hearing and understanding what was said to him, say people who knew him.

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A man fatally shot by a Seattle police officer after being ordered to drop a knife often had difficulty hearing and understanding what was said to him, say people who knew him.

John T. Williams, 50, was killed by Officer Ian Birk Monday afternoon. Birk saw Williams with a knife and repeatedly ordered him to drop it just before the shooting, police said.

Williams, it turned out, was a First Nations totem carver and chronic inebriate who had told people he was deaf in one ear, say those who knew him. He also could be so drunk he wouldn’t understand what people were saying to him.

Police said Wednesday that they are looking into reports that Williams may have been hard of hearing.

“He struggled with a lot things. He had a long history of homelessness and a long history of drinking, and he suffered with some profound cognitive challenges from that,” said Nicole Macri, a spokeswoman for the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), which runs 1811 Eastlake, a home for long-term alcoholics where Williams had lived off and on for the past several years.

Williams had returned to the home two weeks ago after being convicted of a felony for exposing himself to a staff member in May 2009. Macri said the employee had welcomed him back, reinforcing the perception held by Macri and others at DESC that Williams posed no threat.

“He was known to be volatile at times, particularly when he was intoxicated, which was a common state for him, but he was very vulnerable,” Macri said. “Obviously he was not perceived as such a threat that he could not move back into our housing.”

Birk, 27, who joined the department two years ago, was on patrol Monday afternoon when he saw Williams crossing Boren Avenue at Howell Street carrying a folding knife with a three-inch blade and a piece of wood.

The officer pulled his cruiser over and approached Williams, police officials said. Police say Birk ordered him to drop the knife three times before he fired four shots from a distance of nine to 10 feet.

Initial reports were that the man advanced on the officer with the knife; however, the department on Tuesday said it could no longer be sure that occurred.

Sean Whitcomb, the police department’s spokesman, said Wednesday that the department was looking for additional witnesses to the shooting or anyone who might have been with Williams earlier in the day.

Birk has been placed on routine administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

The shooting, in addition to being reviewed by homicide detectives and King County prosecutors, will be subject to an internal police department shooting review to ensure Birk had complied with the department’s policy for using deadly force. The county will also likely order a coroner’s inquest to review Williams’ death.

Macri said employees and residents at 1811 Eastlake were devastated by the shooting.

“We have a strong partnership with the Seattle Police Department, and we are encouraged they have promised a full and transparent investigation; at this point we aren’t drawing conclusions. We want to know more, just like everyone else,” she said.

Alex Castas, general manager of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the Seattle waterfront, said his shop has been buying carvings from Williams’ family for five generations, stretching back to the 1880s, when the shop used to buy from tribal members paddling up in canoes.

He said he had known Williams for 15 years, and never known him to be violent, though he often knew Williams to be incoherent because of drinking.

“I can definitely see a scenario where John had been drinking and it is taking him a while to focus exactly on what is going on; I could see him tripping more than I could see him lunging.”

It was the same for Chaney Haney and Julie Reisman, co-owners of Glo, a restaurant on Capitol Hill where Williams sold his work, and liked to sit on the bench outside on the sidewalk, carving.

“I wonder if the officer knew he was hard of hearing; he told me he could not hear out of one ear,” Haney said. “If it was my guess, I would just say he was standing there and the officer was trying to get his attention and John didn’t hear him.”

Reisman said Williams was slow on his feet, and difficult to communicate with.

“He is not a lucid person. You can’t have a coherent conversation with him. You say, ‘How is it going?’ and he will start talking about something that has nothing to do with here and now,” Reisman said. “There was a real disconnect there between what he was receiving and what he was putting out.”

Williams “often was so drunk he just never even realized anyone was talking to him,” Reisman said. He also seemed far too slow and feeble to her to hurt anybody. “Every step that he would take, it was like he was moving a mountain.”

Officials from Williams’ First Nations tribe in British Columbia were shocked by the shooting.

“It was unbelievable that this would happen in this day and age,” said Les Sam, chief of the Tseshaht First Nation in the Alberni Valley on Vancouver Island. The Tseshaht are one of 14 member nations of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council.

Williams was a member of the Ditidaht First Nation, also a member nation of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth. The Ditidaht First Nation is a small, remote community on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Seattle Times staff reporters Sara Jean Green and Mike Carter contributed to this report.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or