SEATTLE – After reviewing the circumstances and witness statements in the fatal police shooting Aug. 30 of John T. Williams, the Seattle Police Chief and the department’s Firearm Review Board reached a preliminary finding Oct. 14. They determined the shooting was not justified.
Williams, a long time Seattle resident, was a 50-year-old seventh generation carver and a Nitinaht member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. His carvings are part of many art collections, including the Smithsonian Museum.
The autopsy report released Oct. 5 revealed that Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk fatally shot the woodcarver four times on the right side of his body. Birk, 27, is a two-year veteran of the department.
Birk initially told his superiors he’d seen Williams sitting on a low wall and “found it strange” that he carried a piece of wood and a knife.
The SPD reported at their initial press briefing that Birk said he had commanded Williams to drop the knife, and that the carver then “lunged” at him.
The SPD retracted its statements the next day as witnesses came forward to contradict Birk’s version of events. Community members were angered when SPD Deputy Chief Nick Metz attempted to justify the shooting by referring to Williams as a chronic inebriate and a petty criminal.
Williams’ arrest history related to his homelessness for such offenses as drinking in public and public exposure.
The shooting happened within a minute of Birk stopping his patrol car. The in-car camera recorded two men crossing in front of the car; the audio indicates Birk issued at least three commands to Williams to drop his knife. Birk claimed Williams refused, and he fired four rounds at Williams from a 9-10 foot distance.
Williams’ family says it is most likely Williams did not hear the officer’s commands.
Thomas, who prefers to use his first name only, witnessed the incident from a nearby window overlooking the busy intersection of Howell and Boren streets. He said he saw Williams walking away from the officer. “When I heard that story (from SPD), I was really upset because it was just total counter to what I witnessed.
“The cop then fired three shots. One had to go in the side and the others had to go in the guy’s back ‘cause the guy never did turn around. He never approached the cop. Never saw his hands. Never saw a knife. He may have looked back at the cop, but he didn’t do anything threatening.”
Gregory Reese, another witness, said, “He just turned around and the cop shot him. That’s all I saw. It was really quick.”
Williams was carrying a piece of wood and a three-inch folding knife, legal to carry in Seattle. Chief John Diaz said there had been no criminal complaints made about the carver.
The Firearms Review Board concluded its hearing Oct. 4, and presented its confidential preliminary findings to Diaz. Per their policy, and to support the integrity of the upcoming King County inquest, the review board would not comment on any findings or recommendations.
The Review Board will reconvene following the evaluation of criminal liability by the King County prosecutor. Birk remains on paid administrative leave.
The aftereffects of the shooting reverberated through the Northwest and beyond. Within three days of William’s death, a candlelight vigil at the Chief Seattle Club, a downtown center that provides services to homeless Native Americans drew scores of community members including Seattle’s mayor and city attorney.
The Seattle Human Rights Commission wrote to Diaz expressing serious concerns. “SPD has the responsibility to treat all citizens with fairness, respect and value. Please bear in mind that many in the Native community believe that this is not an isolated incident.”
Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter Sept. 7 that called for a change in the mindset and training of the SPD:
“Too often, officers have overreacted or escalated incidents when the subject is an individual of color, disabled, homeless or otherwise ‘different.’ We fear that the drive for so-called ‘civility’ laws has created a mindset that our streets need to be rid of ‘undesirable’ people. It sends a message to officers that some people are suspect because of their appearance and manner and should be removed from public view to make others ‘feel’ safer.”
Taylor called for the implementation of corrective measures in regards to leadership, de-escalation training and cross cultural skills.
Since the shooting, there have been numerous meetings between Diaz, elected officials, and community members. At the first meeting called by the Native Advisory Council an 8-year-old Native boy asked, “Why did you kill the carver? Why did you do that?”
The finding, by the Firearms Review Board that the shooting was unjustified is highly unusual, and may not be the final word on this case. Although this is the first such finding in decades, there have been such findings overturned by the inquest jury.
King County Executive Dow Constantine ordered a routine inquest into this fatal shooting Oct. 13. The Review Board will reconvene after the inquest for a final finding; the inquest process can take up to 90 days.
According to the City of Seattle an inquest is not a criminal proceeding, it is a fact-finding hearing. Its purpose is to determine who died; the cause of death; and the circumstances surrounding the death, including the identification of anyone who may be criminally liable for the death. Inquest participants include the prosecuting attorney, an impaneled jury, and attorneys for Williams and Birk. At its conclusion, the King County prosecutor will make a decision about criminal charges.
Williams had spent many years on the streets without a home, but had lived in recent years at 1811 Eastlake, a home for alcoholics that does not require sobriety. He was walking near his home when he crossed paths with Birk.
“He was deaf in one ear and half deaf in the other. He was almost blind (and) could hardly walk,” Alexis Jackson, 74-year-old elder and friend of Williams, said at a news conference at the Chief Seattle Club. Jackson said he himself was the victim of beatings by the SPD.
Rick Williams, brother of John T., speaks I sat down on a bench in Indian Park with Rick Williams today. Although he’s had many interviews throughout this difficult time, as usual he remained gracious and eloquent. I asked him what he wanted to tell people. Here are his words. “We’re from the Nitinaht Tribe, we’re Coast Salish affiliated with the Nuun-Cha-Nuulth confederacy. “These people, they didn’t care about people until this happened. They didn’t care about artists. Seattle Police Department had no clue. Since 1947 my family (has) made a name here as artists. (When this happened) I said no, you’re not sweeping this under the table. “They got no clue, no honor, no respect. All they saw was a man with a knife. “John was a very honorable carver. There was Rick, Dave, Sam, John and Dad Raymond, (we) stayed true to the Nitinaht carvers. “And these people didn’t care until they died, and then they tell the story. Just once, I’d like to see them acknowledge us while we’re above ground. We’re considered Master Carvers. In our community, we’re highly respected. “They don’t see it, they don’t understand. Heritage is everything. … Back in the ’70s, we could go to any park and see carvers from different tribes. We’re the only ones left, Eric and I. We’d like to request the carvers to come back, so the journey can continue, (so) the truth (can) be told as to who we are as wood carvers. “For 40 years I heard ‘What are you whittling Chief?’ And I’d smile and say, ‘I’m carving a story without talking.’ It’s a carver’s thought. “For 40 years. Dad heard it longer than I did. “John was going to quit drinking. He sat and carved with us. It took him two hours to get from here to Boren and Howell. That’s where they shot him. Monday morning he sat and talked with us. He smiled that smile at me and said, ‘I’m going to stop, I like what you guys are doing. I’m going to come back and carve again.’ “We thought it would be cool to see the brothers sitting together again. John and me was joking. For 40 years, he’d say, ‘Rick you can’t fix everything.’ I said, ‘Yes I can.’ When this happened I heard John say ‘Fix this one!’ I did fix everything. This is by far the top shelf I’ve had to fix. “In the real world, my heart spoke to my family again. Stand your ground, speak from my heart, listen to what The Old Ones say. Visions I’m having. Whenever I’m blessed in my life to have visions I find strength in it. “People see me and say: I don’t see an angry man. I got people coming from Europe, Alaska, Japan. “Every time I see a policeman I want to ask a question, but I don’t. I stand and watch, and let The Old Ones see what I’m looking at. “You know what they’re hearing? They’re hearing my heart. How often do you hear that?” I asked Rick how people could support him and his family. Rick said, “Help us by buying our work. We’re setting up a website now and you’ll soon be able to order our work.” For more information e-mail email@example.com. Editors note: John Williams was carrying the piece of wood he was carving with his knife when he was fatally shot by a Seattle police officer.