Outcry in Seattle over whitewashing of killing

March 7, 2011

SEATTLE--Despite a public outcry and damning evidence, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced on February 16 that he would not press charges against officer Ian Birk for the shooting death of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams.

In recent weeks, public outrage over Williams' death has grown, as more evidence--in police reports, dashboard video footage, forensic samples and numerous eyewitness accounts--has come to light.

On August 30, 2010, Birk saw Williams, a Seattle resident and a Ditidaht member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations of Canada's Vancouver Island. Birk pulled his patrol car over and shot Williams five times within a span of 4.6 seconds. This was the amount of time Williams--who had been peacefully carving a block of cedar wood as he walked down the street--had to respond to Birk's order to put down his legal three-inch carving knife, found folded shut at the scene.

Williams died moments later from his wounds. Friends have testified that Williams was partially deaf, and may not have been able to even hear Birk's commands. Numerous eyewitnesses testified that Williams wasn't acting in a threatening manner when he was shot to death.

Satterberg said his decision was dictated by state law, which states, "A public officer or peace officer shall not be held criminally liable for using deadly force without malice and with a good-faith belief that such act is justifiable pursuant to this section."

"In order to prosecute, I would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt he acted with evil intent," explained Satterberg. "We have no proof of this. We would also have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that [Birk] believed he wasn't in danger."

However, later that same day, the Seattle Police Department Firearms Review Board contradicted the prosecutor's statement, with an official report that ruled the shooting as "not justified."

Since these announcements, Birk has resigned from the police force amid a firestorm of cries for justice and accountability, by both citizens and city officials.

"I am very disappointed in the King County Prosecutor's decision not to file criminal charges regarding the death of Mr. John T. Williams," announced Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell. "Officer Birk should be disciplined to the fullest extent provided under the internal process used by the City of Seattle. Our recruitment and training of police officers must prevent this type of tragedy from occurring again. We must adopt a zero-tolerance culture relative to the unlawful use of force."

In his statement on the decision, Mayor Mike McGinn attempted to sidestep his own accountability--and in doing so, hinted at the fact that he did not have the political clout to influence any decisions made by the department or prosecutor's office: "In our system of government, I do not have the authority to bring criminal charges. This authority rests with the King County Prosecutor, a separately elected official accountable to King County voters.

THE DAY Satterberg made his announcement was marked by at least three protests. At 6 p.m., a rally called by activist groups ballooned into a march of at least 1,000 protesters that wove through downtown streets and blocked rush-hour traffic. Marchers were eventually met with steel barricades and police in riot gear and on horseback--but no arrests were made.

This followed a February 3 forum on police accountability at City Hall that drew more than 350 people. The forum featured the biggest and most controversial players in Seattle police politics, including Seattle Police Chief John Diaz; Mayor Mike McGinn; SPD Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) Auditor Anne Levinson; Seattle City Council Public Safety Chair and former police officer Tim Burgess; Seattle Police Officers Guild President Richard O'Neill; Nicole Gaines, president of the Loren Miller Bar Association, the local chapter of the largest national organization of African American attorneys; ACLU of Washington Deputy Director Jennifer Shaw; and Pamela Masterman Stearns, president of City of Seattle Native American Employees.

The audience was comprised of police officers, their supporters, police critics, organized leftists, minority rights organizations, City of Seattle politicians and staff, members of the Native American community, the Williams family, and more--making for a very volatile room.

Pro-Williams organizations in the audience included the John T. Williams Organizing Committee, Lutheran Public Policy Office Washington State, the NAACP, El Comité Pro-Reforma Migratoria Y Justicia Social, American Friends Service Committee, Mothers for Police Accountability and the International Socialist Organization, among others.

The panel was conceived of as a moderated dialogue between the panelists, with no ability for the wider community to speak and ask questions directly of the panelists--all of whom, aside from Gaines, tried to give canned responses for the press.

But the panelists were interrupted. Northwest Coast artist Dallas Singhurst was one of many who fired back, calling for answers and accountability. Seattle NAACP President James Bible declared the forum a "political puff piece."

At some points, Rick Williams, brother of the late John Williams, and other members of the Native community would walk to the front of the room and stand directly in front of the panelist, forcing them to look him in the eyes while they spoke.

Some audience members stormed out of the room early on. But what they missed by leaving was a sight to behold. Community members repeatedly "broke the rules" of the "dialogue" by standing and asking their questions until the moderator was forced to acknowledge community questions and direct them to the panelists for answers.

It was truly an inspiring turn of events that transformed a piece of staged political theatre into a situation where Seattle officials were called to task by a justly upset community.

Members of El Comité circled the room with a banner that called for Chief Diaz to resign. In a statement after the panel, James Bible also called for the Chief's resignation, and for the department to change its practice of overlooking and covering up a rash of recent human rights violations.

"We recognize that civil and human rights violations are occurring here in Seattle at a remarkable pace, most of which are not reported," the statement read. "The people that put chief Diaz in a position that he is now the Chief of Seattle permanently, need to be in a place where they face the fear that they will not be re-elected and that goes for the mayor and for every city council member that knew of the concerns and failed to do anything."

After the forum, members of the Native American community also affirmed this belief. "The police guild is an obstacle to real change, and [Seattle Police Officers Guild president] Rich O'Neill's comments here tonight confirmed that," said Jay Hollingsworth, co-chair of the John T. Williams Organizing Committee. "They aren't bargaining in good faith, they are putting up obstacles to justice, putting themselves first in every argument."

"This panel is an embarrassment, a joke," added Janice Brown. "I'm paying taxes so that they can lie to me?"

THE EVENTS of the past several months have put the violence, racism and dishonesty of the SPD on horrific display. Unfortunately, the murder of John Williams is only the tip of the iceberg.

Last 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 him, 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. Then, 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.

The Justice Department has launched a preliminary review of the Seattle Police Department in response to these and other incidents. The review will include both individual and systemic accounts of civil rights violations by the SPD. In the event of a full-on investigation, the federal agency could work with the department to remedy problems or, if constitutional violations are uncovered, seek written settlements to ensure changes.

The federal Justice Department is not an impartial arbiter standing above the sway of politics, however. Those who wish to see Ian Birk brought to justice, the SPD revamped, and the laws governing the ability to charge police officers with homicide changed should take a lesson from how protesters transformed the police accountability forum last month--by standing collectively and demanding that their voices be heard.

This "perfect storm" of events has brought police brutality to the forefront of political debate in Seattle. In this climate, grassroots organizing and civil disobedience could succeed in pressuring Mayor McGinn to fire Chief Diaz, appoint a new director of the OPA or change the disciplinary rules in the police contract (which is up for negotiation later this year)--while at the same time creating an atmosphere that pressures the Justice Department to actually defend the civil rights of minority communities that are all too often denied justice.

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