Seattle will pay $1.5M to family of carver shot by police

The Seattle TimesApril 29, 2011 

The City of Seattle has agreed to pay $1.5 million to the family of John T. Williams, who was fatally shot by a police officer.

The Aug. 30 shooting of the 50-year-old First Nations woodcarver and chronic street inebriate was found to be unjustified by the Seattle Police Department's Firearms Review Board and led to the resignation of the officer, Ian Birk, earlier this year.

The agreement, announced Friday, was reached without a claim or lawsuit being filed by the family, although the city was facing the likelihood of a federal civil-rights suit.

Birk, 28, resigned Feb. 16, hours after the Police Department released the scathing findings of the firearms board, which concluded he acted outside the department's "policy, tactics and training" when he shot Williams four times at the intersection Boren Avenue and Howell Street.

At the time Birk resigned, the department was moving toward firing him.

On the same day, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced he would not bring criminal charges against Birk, who joined the department in 2008.

Satterberg said state law prohibited him from filing charges because Birk believed Williams, who was carrying a knife, posed a threat. Satterberg said there was no evidence Birk acted with malice, noting that police officers are given more protection against criminal prosecution for homicide than ordinary citizens.

Williams' family has asked the King County Superior Court judges to convene a citizen grand jury to consider whether Birk should be criminally charged. The court is reviewing the request, which was filed March 16.

Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal review of the shooting to determine whether Birk should be charged with violating Williams' civil rights. The shooting also was one of several high-profile incidents in the past year that prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil-rights investigation into the Police Department's use of force and treatment of minorities.

The shooting occurred after Birk, while driving his patrol car, saw Williams cross the street holding a piece of wood and the knife, which had a 3-inch blade. Williams, a member of the Ditidaht Tribe, part of Canada's Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, used the knife for carving, his family said.

Birk got out of his car and followed Williams onto the sidewalk. He shouted at Williams to get his attention and ordered him three times to put down the knife. About four seconds after the first command, Birk fired when Williams didn't respond.

At a court inquest into the shooting in January, Birk testified he was initially concerned because Williams showed signs of impairment while carrying a knife. When he sought to question Williams, he said, Williams turned toward him with a "very stern, very serious, very confrontational look."

Birk told jurors he fired because Williams "still had the knife out" and was in "a very confrontational posture."

Two witnesses contradicted Birk, saying they didn't see Williams do anything threatening.

The eight-member jury reached mixed findings on the shooting. Four of eight jurors found that Birk wasn't facing an imminent threat when he fatally shot Williams, and that he didn't give Williams sufficient time to put down the knife.

One juror found that Birk faced a threat and gave Williams sufficient time; three others answered "unknown."

Four jurors determined Birk believed he was in danger when he encountered Williams, while four others answered "unknown."

Williams' knife was found in the closed position after the shooting.

Jurors unanimously found that Williams was carrying an open knife when first seen by Birk. But four said "no" and four said "unknown" when asked if the blade was extended when Birk fired.

The firearms board concluded Birk didn't properly identify himself as a police officer and acted too quickly. The board also determined that Birk didn't appropriately assess the situation, including options such as taking cover.

When the shooting findings were released, Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer, who authored the report, said Birk's actions were "among the most egregious failings that I have seen."

Weeks after the shooting, the department took steps to bolster its training and community relations.

This story includes material from Seattle Time archives.

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