Four seconds to his death

January 27, 2011

Leela Yellesetty and Chris Mobley report on the findings of an inquest into the Seattle police shooting death of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams.

FOUR-POINT-six seconds. That was the amount of time John T. Williams had to respond to Seattle police officer Ian Birk's order to put down his legal three-inch carving knife before Birk unloaded five lethal rounds into his back on August 30.

"Four seconds to death" read the headbands of protesters during the recent inquest into his death.

An eight-member jury issued its findings last week after five days of testimony at the King County Courthouse. Their task was to establish the facts surrounding the incident, not to make a determination of Birk's guilt. It is now up to the discretion of King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to press criminal and/or civil charges against Birk.

Each juror was asked to answer "yes," "no" or "unknown" to a series of 19 questions. They did not have to agree. The full list of questions and responses can be read online.

Despite the mainstream press' description of the results as "split" or "mixed," they actually are quite damning to the police version of events.

Seattle activists are organizing to win justice for police shooting victim John T. Williams
Seattle activists are organizing to win justice for police shooting victim John T. Williams (Chris Mobley | SW)

For instance, in response to the question. "Did John T. Williams have sufficient time to put the knife down after Officer Birk's order?" only one juror answered "yes," four "no" and three "unknown." Four jurors believed that Birk thought Williams posed an imminent threat at the time, but only one actually thought he did pose a threat. Half the jurors believed Williams' knife was closed when Birk shot him, and half were unsure.

These results come months after an independent investigation by the Seattle Police Firearms Review Board, which ruled the shooting "unjustified."

John's older brother Rick Williams said he was encouraged by the inquest results, and hoped that they would lead to Birk's prosecution. "Of course I want to see him prosecuted. Going to play God with my family? It's us who are going to have to live with it forever. My daughters, my grandchildren. The process? Four point something seconds to make a decision...what are you, God?"

WILLIAMS WAS a Native American woodcarver with the Ditidaht Tribe, part of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations in British Columbia. On the afternoon of August 30, Williams crossed a busy intersection, in front of Ian Birk's patrol car.

What you can do

View the video from Officer Birk's dashboard camera of the shooting of John T. Williams.

Sign the petition urging King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to press charges against Officer Birk. Also, call Satterberg at 206-296-9000 or e-mail him and request that Birk be held accountable and charged.

Help the Williams family by donating to the John T. Williams Benevolent Fund through the Boeing Employees Credit Union.

For more information and ways to get involved, visit the John T. Williams Organizing Committee Facebook page.

Captured on Birk's dashboard mounted video camera, Williams is seen crossing in front of Birk's car with a wood board on his arm. Birk then leaves his patrol car to confront Williams as both leave the field of vision of the camera. Birk issues three quick commands to Williams to drop his knife and then opens fire.

Questions surfaced in the days and weeks following the shooting over the justification for Birk's actions.

First, Williams' folding knife, despite early police reports, was found in a closed position, as evidenced in crime scene photos. Second, an autopsy revealed that Williams was not fully facing the officer when he was shot, suggesting that Williams was shot as he was turning in response to Birk's commands. Third, friends have testified that Williams was partially deaf, and may not have been able to even hear Birk's commands. And, lastly, the time between when Birk ordered Williams to drop the knife and when the first shots were fired didn't allow much time for Williams to comply with Birk's orders.

The inquest process further revealed inconsistencies between Birk's account of the events, eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence.

Why did Birk stop Williams in the first place? Birk testified during the inquest that he was concerned Williams appeared inebriated and was brandishing a folding knife as he walked in front of his patrol car. But a knife is not clearly visible in video footage taken from Birk's patrol car. Even under review of video experts, it is unclear whether the knife would have been clearly visible from Birk's vantage point.

Birk also has given conflicting accounts for his motivation for shooting Williams. At the inquest, Birk stated that when confronting Williams, Williams turned and that his body language indicated that he was going to attack. Never before had Birk given this explanation--not to responding officers at the scene, and not weeks later to an investigating police detective. Yet this perception of body language is the main justification of shooting Williams, according to his testimony.

Numerous eyewitnesses, however, testified that Williams wasn't acting in a threatening manner at all. Birk's own action of moving towards Williams gives lie to the notion that Birk felt threatened by him.

Birk never identified himself as a police officer or warned Williams that he would shoot if he didn't drop the knife.

When their initial story that Williams' knife was open was disproved, police relied on the argument that the knife's locking mechanism was faulty, and that the knife must have snapped shut when it hit the ground. Whether or not this is a real possibility remains unknown.

According to the testimony of John's brother, Rick Williams, John would always close his knife when approached by someone--as their father taught him to do. Further expert testimony, while inconclusive over the state of the blade when Williams was shot, did indicate that the lock would work if the blade was fully engaged.

Shockingly, a police witness also maintained that even if the knife was closed, Birk was justified in shooting Williams, according to department policy. According to testimony by officer Williams Collins, a closed knife poses just as big a threat as an open knife. According to Collins:

We receive a lot of training on dealing with people with edged weapons and basically the risk involved, we have what's called a "21-foot rule." If someone is 21 feet away with a knife that's closed or a knife that's open, the vast majority of the time they'll be able to close the distance and stab you before you can recognize the threat, recognize the attack, accept it, and decide on a course of action.

This suggests that even if Birk followed department policies in dealing with perceived threats, the actual policies should receive further review and scrutiny. The "21-foot rule" seems to be an obvious candidate.

As to why Birk pulled his gun out as soon as he confronted Williams, "It probably happens more often than some people realize, it's part of our training regimen," stated Collins. "If you have the opportunity to have your gun out, it's important that you do so...Whoever's taking the action will always have advantage on whoever's reacting. [In training] we went through exercise after exercise we were shown, action beats reaction."

Another issue raised by activists is Birk's membership in the Army National Guard. Although he was never deployed, he did receive combat training.

"They have to dehumanize us in order to attack and hurt people," said Sweetwater Nannauck of the parallels between police and military training in an interview. "This is one of the questions raised by Mothers for Police Accountability about new officers coming back from the military and fighting in urban war zones and bringing that back onto our city streets. That's bringing in a culture of hate, a culture of dehumanization."

NEW EVIDENCE has surfaced that such a culture exists among members of the Seattle Police Department as well. A recent leak of the Seattle police officers' guild newsletter, the Guardian, has revealed the real attitudes Seattle police have toward the public and people of color.

Numerous editorials written by Officer Steven Pomper, an 18-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department, show contempt of city-sponsored racial sensitivity training. "The city, using its Race and Social Justice Initiative, continues its assault on traditional and constitutional American values such as self-reliance, equal justice, and individual liberty," he wrote, continuing, "But more to our concern, the city is inflicting its socialist policies directly on the Seattle Police Department."

As part of the city's "Race and Social Justice Initiative," nearly 1,800 officers have participated in the "Perspectives in Profiling" workshop, in which officers are shown video clips of potentially suspicious behavior and asked to discuss how they would handle the situations.

Pomper wrote of the workshop, "The 'Perspectives in Profiling' class (or as one officer put it, one of our 'de-policing classes') served as a good way to learn what the enemy is up to. (Yes, enemy. A liberal after my money in taxes may be my opponent, but a socialist attacking the Constitution and my liberty is my enemy.)"

Pomper says officers should "take the city's use of social justice terminology and implementation of policy seriously and oppose it in every legal way possible."

A November article by Officer Clayton Powell, discusses his "communication skills" in dealing with the public. Referring to "mother f**ker," which, he argues, is a "commonly used street term showing endearment to something or someone," he elaborates on other terms that he finds are appropriate in communicating with the public such as "bitch" and "n***a." (Asterisks are his.)

"If I can communicate with someone in their primary makes me a more effective officer," writes Powell. "Learn to accept and appreciate the direct method of in-your-face communication."

But if you think this may be just a "few bad apples," we can turn to the writings of Police Guild President Rich O'Neill. In one article, he expresses disdain for police oversight. Referring to the "media frenzy" over the shooting of Williams, he writes, "It is extremely frustrating when individuals with zero police training feel qualified to voice their opinions on police actions."

THESE LEAKED articles are just the latest from a police force that has become an ongoing public relations fiasco for the city of Seattle. Over the past year, several incidents of police brutality have been caught on video, garnering national media attention.

In April, an officer was filmed stomping on a Mexican American man and telling him that he was going to "beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you, homey. You feel me?" while other officers watched.

In June, video was released of a Seattle police officer punching a 17-year-old African American woman in the face during a stop for jaywalking. In November, footage from a convenience store was released showing an undercover officer kicking a teenager in the leg, chest and face during a round-up of suspects.

Citing these and other incidents, in December the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and 34 community groups issued a letter to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) requesting it open a "pattern or practice investigation" into multiple incidents of what the ACLU calls excessive force by the Seattle Police Department, particularly force used against persons of color.

As if to underscore the need for such an investigation, earlier this month, a radio reporter witnessed police punching a man while he was handcuffed on the ground.

In this context, the Williams shooting has become a rallying point for a broader movement for police accountability in the city. Holding Birk accountable for his actions would make a major dent in the SPD's attitude that officers can get away with murder and be a huge victory for communities who have been brutalized for years.

"Every day you have people beat on the street, and it's not caught on videotape," said Juan Bocanegra of El Comité Pro-Reforma Migratoria Y Justicia Social at a rally for Williams on the first day of the inquest. "I've been in Seattle for 42 years and have never seen the conviction of one police officer. That is a tragedy because people of color are paying the price for their behavior."

Activists face an uphill battle in winning justice for John T. Williams. If Birk goes to trial, it is believed that it will be only the second time that an officer has been charged with murder in state history.

An additional hurdle is Washington state law. If an officer claims that he or she used deadly force in self-defense, it is difficult for prosecutors to obtain a conviction unless it can be proved that the officer acted with malice and a lack of good faith. According to legal experts, police are allowed to panic and make mistakes, even if it results in a death, without being held criminally liable.

Despite these obstacles, there is reason to be hopeful. Last year's trial of Officer Johannes Mehserle for the murder of Oscar Grant in an Oakland, Calif., BART station came after mass public outcry over the shooting. While Mehserle ultimately got off on a lesser charge of manslaughter, it was grassroots activism and mobilization that made the trial happen in the first place, the first of its kind in California history.

A similar public outcry has been brewing in Seattle since Williams' shooting, although the scale of the response has not yet reached that of the Grant shooting. "This shooting has brought a lot of people together," said Reverend Harriet Walden of Mothers for Police Accountability at a forum on Martin Luther King day, "It has pricked people's consciousness."

The John T. Williams Organizing Committee (JTWOC) was formed just days after the shooting and has pulled together an impressive coalition of community and social justice groups.

"This is our brother, this is our uncle, this is our neighbor, this is our friend," said Sweetwater Nannauck, co-chair of the JTWOC. "He represents so many people. This is homeless people, this is deaf people, this could be any one of us. Really it's time to unite and help one another, unite to lift each other up and help to change things here."

Since organizing a rally on September 16, the JTWOC has focused on a petition and e-mail campaign to ask Satterberg to charge Birk with murder. They mobilized hundreds to come out to hear the inquest testimony (forcing the courthouse to provide an overflow room) and held demonstrations and vigils in the park afterward.

"We became united over this--we need to stay that way," said JTWOC co-chair Jay Hollingsworth. "Our power is in our numbers, in our unity. We need to be prepared to act."

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