Seattle police officer must be held accountable

Published on February 16, 2011

John T. Williams was fatally shot on Aug. 30 by Seattle Police officer Ian Birk.

Seattle — 

The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council was shocked and dismayed to learn that the King County Prosecutor’s office will not bring charges against Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk for the shooting death of John T. Williams, a carver with roots in Ditidaht First Nation, Vancouver Island, BC.
Birk fatally shot Williams on Aug. 30, 2010 as he was making his way along a busy downtown street. Birk fired his weapon within a few short seconds of calling to Williams to drop the knife he was using to carve a block of wood.
“This decision is hugely significant to us, with so many Nuu-chah-nulth people living in Seattle,” said Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Vice-President Priscilla Sabbas-Watts. “Birk and the Seattle Police Department must be held accountable.”
The Union of BC Indian Chiefs, through Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, said it was also concerned with the decision of the prosecutor.
Phillip said UBCIC “shares the disbelief, disgust and deep disappointment of the Williams family, the Ditidaht First Nation and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. When an indigenous person dies at the hands of a police officer, it does not matter what jurisdiction it happens in, the officer is not held to account to the same degree as any other member of the general public.”
The King County Prosecutor claims that Washington law gives police officers an added level of protection against criminal liability in such cases, unless it can be proved that an officer acts with malice or in bad faith. Yet the Seattle Police Department’s own Firearms Review Board concluded that Birk’s shooting of Williams was not justified. Seattle Police Chief John Diaz called the shooting “egregious” and the board’s review of it the most “damning” in three decades.
Sabbas-Watts said there is a clear disconnect between the prosecutor’s conclusions of the shooting and those of the Seattle Police.
“Ian Birk did not act in good faith when he engaged John T. Williams,” said Sabbas-Watts. “John was visibly a carver. He was carrying a legal knife and a block of wood. He was not menacing; not threatening the public in any way. So why was Birk so quick to fire five shots from his gun?”
Sabbas-Watts said Birk violated the policies and procedures set out by his own department and shouldn’t get “a pass” just because he is a police officer.
“There has to be some middle ground in situations where there is such an obvious disregard of policy and procedure.”
Phillip said trials against police officers are rare. Jurors, he said, are more inclined to believe the police to be the “good guys.”
“It appears that quite a number of critical police incidents resulting in death or serious bodily harm involve young and inexperienced officers,” said Phillip.
“More and more, the general public want officers who exercise poor judgement and abusive misconduct to stop hiding behind the badge and the mythology of the good guy and stand before the law like everyone else.”
Sabbas-Watts said John T. Williams faced a number of social issues and was receiving fantastic support from the community of the Chief Seattle Club, which was devastated by Williams’ tragic death. There is a large Native American population in Seattle and Seattle Police need to become aware of who these people are.
“Reach out to the local Native Nations to learn about their culture. Work with the organizations that deal with the marginalized and diverse minority populations that make up Seattle,” Sabbas-Watts said.
She said it is time now to explore such opportunities rather than wait for another incident to occur.
“If Birk won’t be held criminally responsible for the death of John T. Williams, then lessons must be learned from his terrible mistake.”
Ian Birk was hoping to stay on as a police officer, but since the Firearms Review Board report recommended action to discipline him, Birk decided to resign.
“What is amazing is how quickly the Seattle Police and the Prosecutor’s office came to a clear decision which they respectively took the time to publicize,” said Phillip.
“Unlike recent incidents here in British Columbia where the RCMP and the municipal police are more often interested in maintaining the ‘esprit de corps’ than addressing the deep concerns of the police investigating the police. It is too easy to say such officers went rogue or to paint them as ‘bad apples.’ These young officers are a relection of modern-day policing where funding for pre-screening and training are growing scarce at a time when more verteran officers are retiring.
“We need to learn from these horrific acts and bring fundamental reforms to policing. Police officers are not above the law.”