An honest finding in police killing

October 21, 2010

Johnny Mao reports on new developments in the investigation into the deadly shooting of a Native American by a Seattle police officer.

ANTI-POLICE brutality activists in Seattle are celebrating a victory in the case of John Williams, a Native American man who was shot and killed by a police officer in late August.

On October 14, the Seattle Police Department Firearms Review Board reached a preliminary finding that officer Ian Birk's deadly shooting of Williams on August 30 was not justified. Birk, who remains on routine paid leave, was ordered to surrender his badge and gun.

Birk shot 50-year-old Williams four times, killing him almost instantly. In its original statement, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) said that Williams had advanced toward the police officer, but the police later retreated from this claim.

Ten days before this announcement, an autopsy report prepared by the King County Medical Examiner's Office and supplemented by eyewitness accounts revealed that Williams had been shot four times on his right side, indicating that he was not facing the officer at the time that the shots were fired.

"There's nothing looking like he was facing toward him," Tim Ford, attorney for the Williams family, told the Seattle Times. "Where is the threat?"

Marching to Seattle City Hall to demand justice for John Williams
Marching to Seattle City Hall to demand justice for John Williams

The tragic incident happened at the busy downtown corner of Boren and Howell, when Birk saw Williams, who is a traditional First Nations woodcarver, holding a three-inch carving knife of legal length and a block of cedar.

According to Birk, he shouted an order to drop the knife three times. But it's unclear that Williams, who was deaf in one ear, heard him. On top of that, the autopsy report showed that a portable radio set with headphones, which Williams frequently wore, were also found by the dead man's side.

"NOT JUSTIFIED." These were welcome words for friends, family and supporters of Williams who have rallied for justice in this case. The last time that a Seattle police brutality case has been ruled not justified was in 1971. "This has hit all of Seattle," Williams' adopted sister Susanne Chambers told KING5 News. "It hasn't just hit family members. There are so many people touched by what happened."

Williams was a member of Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations First Nations in British Columbia. "He gave freely of himself, he would teach people," Chambers told KING5, "but he had so much more potential. He hadn't even begun his elderhood."

Seattle's police have typically been allowed to skate by without legal ramification in face of accusations of brutality, as detailed in an October 13 Seattle Weekly article. Past cases include the shooting death of Antonio Dunsmore, who held a clear water pistol; Michael Okarma, who police shot in the back of the head; an African American woman who was punched in the face during a stop for jaywalking; and a Mexican American man who was handcuffed, threatened with racial slurs and stomped in the back of the head in the presence of a group of officers.

However, in the face of anger and pressure from community members and ongoing media attention to the case of John Williams, the board has so far been forced to rule against the officer.

Since the shooting, a group of Native people and community members have come together to form a coalition to call for justice for John Williams. Many organizations have added their voices to the campaign for justice, including the NAACP, American Friends Service Committee, Mothers for Police Accountability, International Socialist Organization, El Comite, Jobs with Justice King County Organizing Committee, Pride At Work, May 1st Action Coalition, King County Democrats, Justice Works, Defender Association Racial Disparities Project and the Washington State Democratic Disabilities Issues Caucus.

The "not justified" ruling was made based on testimony from at least two civilian witnesses, the review of other statements made by witnesses, testimony from Birk, and presentations by SPD homicide detectives, investigators and training officials.

The Firearms Review Board included Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer, who oversees the board; East Precinct commander Cpt. James Dermody; Cpt. Richard Belshay, who is former commander of the department's training section; and Lt. Scott Bachler of the training section. Seattle attorney Rebecca Roe also observed the review as a civilian.

After a pending court inquest and fact-finding proceeding, SPD Chief John Diaz and the Firearms Review Board will make a final determination. The King County Prosecutor's Office will decide whether any criminal charges will be filed.

Meanwhile, brewing anger and frustration over the police killing of Williams spilled out in a Native Advisory Council talking circle with the Seattle Native community, the SPD and city officials at Duwamish Longhouse on October 15.

Four city police officers, a couple city council members and an attorney from the King County Prosecutor's Office, Mark Larson, also attended the meeting.

After a prayer song, Duwamish Tribe Chair and Advisory Council Co-chair Cecile Hansen, introduced the police officers, saying, "We can do this. We can come together, and we can all disagree, but we can do it," said Hanson.

Police and city officials thought they could take over the meeting, but they were mistaken. After Larson took the floor to detail the next steps of the investigation's legal review, one by one, attendees raised their hands.

"Fairness, you're talking fairness?" said Robert Upham. "All a police officer has to do is find another job. John T. Williams lost his life."

"How can the people here who are supposed to protect and serve operate on a whole other level, with complete impunity?" asked another attendee.

"You call this a Native Advisory Council meeting--well, here are some points of advice," said Jay Hollingsworth, describing a list of initiatives that might prevent future tragedies, including mandatory multiculturalism training, a crisis intervention training program and community dinners sponsored by different SPD community advisory councils.

"What I want to see from Native meetings is to see that carvers can walk the streets," said another attendee. "We need to make sure our police department is trained."

Activists will have to keep the pressure on city officials and the police, if we are going to win justice for John Williams and an end to police murder in Seattle.

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