It’s Not Murder When the Government Kills You

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“Why did you shoot that man? He didn’t do anything!”

The question was wrenched from a woman who had watched in horror as Police Officer Ian Birk pumped four shots into the body of John T. Williams on a Seattle street corner last August 30.

Birk claimed that he had been “threatened” by Williams, a 50-year-old alcoholic woodcarver who was carrying two closed knives at the time of the incident. The autopsy, however, documented that Williams wasn’t facing Birk when he was shot: The officer approached him from behind and to the right, and Williams was shot in the right side of his body from an estimated distance of about ten feet. A fifth shot that missed the target was never accounted for.

No reasonable person would have considered Williams a threat to Birk; in fact, since the victim was partially deaf, it’s likely he never clearly heard Birk’s demand that he drop his carving knife, and died before understanding what was going on. The entire lethal encounter lasted less than eight seconds.

There were several eyewitnesses to the homicide. None of them saw Williams display threatening behavior of any kind. Then again, none of them was a member of the State’s punitive caste, which means that they hadn’t been indoctrinated to perceive even a momentary lack of cooperation by a Mundane as a “pre-attack indicator.” During the January inquest into the shooting, Birk explained that he gunned down John T. Williams on a Seattle street corner because he didn’t like the way the 50-year-old chronic alcoholic looked at him.

While prowling Seattle's streets last August 30, Birk saw Williams in a crosswalk carrying a knife and a block of wood.  Birk reported that he was going to perform a “shake” — an informal contact with a potentially suspicious person. He exited his police cruiser and, with his firearm in the “Sul” position, commanded Williams to drop his knife. No more than four seconds passed between Birk's demand and the first of five gunshots fired by the officer. The entire encounter lasted roughly seven seconds.

Significantly, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, Birk specified that he had killed Williams for refusing to drop the knife, not because of threatening behavior of any kind. He also told another police officer that Williams “was carving up that board” — which, if true, meant that Birk had seen the knife used as a tool, rather than a weapon.

In the dashcam video, Williams appears to be a small, middle-aged man with a shambling, tentative stride. While crossing the street the artisan does appear to be working with the wood in some fashion. Birk can be seen exiting the car and speaking casually into his portable radio before bellowing “Hey! Hey! Hey! Drop the knife!” Nothing in Birk’s posture or tone of voice suggests that he was confronting a potential assailant, or in fear for his life.

Perhaps the most important fact, given Birk’s claim that he was “threatened” by the confused, partially deaf woodcarver, is the fact that the officer was the one who was closing the distance in the seconds leading up to the shooting.

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