"Why did you
shoot that man? He didn't do anything!"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
a troubled past characterized by alcoholism and occasional fits
of improper public behavior. He
was well known to the police as a "chronic inebriate."
In a video recording of an earlier encounter one officer is heard
telling another that "I write him a ticket every time I can."
In the days
just prior to the August 30 shooting, Williams was stopped by police
on several occasions. In one confrontation, Williams – who at the
time was so deep into his cups that he could barely stand upright
– can be heard making what was described as a "threat"
to kill "all you police force." This "threat"
wasn’t taken seriously by the officers, who simply shrugged their
shoulders and let Williams shuffle away.
police were familiar with Williams, his alcohol abuse, and the occasionally
unsavory public behavior that resulted from it. Officers had also
seen him carrying a carving knife and a block of wood on previous
While he wasn’t
always pleasant to be around, Williams wasn’t known to be disposed
toward violence, and in any case wasn’t physically capable of any.
At the time Birk killed him, Williams was carrying two knives, both
of which were legal under Seattle municipal ordinances (their blades
were under 3.5 inches in length) and
were closed when photographed by crime scene investigators.
Collins, who arrived in response to Birk’s “shots fired” report,
told him, seconds after the killing, that he had done a "good job."
All that Collins knew at the time was that a fellow member of his
coercive brotherhood had just killed a Mundane and that's all
he needed to know.
the January shooting inquest, Seattle police brutality lawyer
Tim Ford asked Collins if a closed knife constitutes a threat to
"officer safety." A closed knife is "a major threat," Collins maintained,
"just as big as an open knife.... It's extremely dangerous, and
you have to treat the person with utmost caution.... [I]f you don't
drop it, you may be shot" even if it is closed at the time.
After all, Collins insisted regurgitating a familiar self-pitying
police cliche "We don't get paid enough to be hurt."
Mudd, who also testified at the inquest, also asserted that Birk's
decision was appropriate: "We're trained to shoot people who pose
a threat to us."
In what sense
was this puzzled, decrepit old alcoholic, "armed" with a small,
closed knife, a "threat" to the young, vigorous, highly trained
paladin of public order who confronted him with a drawn gun? The
answer offered by Birk was that he was justified in shooting Williams
because the woodcarver had given him a dirty look.
"He had a very
stern, very serious, very confrontational look on his face," Birk
testified during the inquest. "He was still holding the knife up
in front of himself ... in a confrontational posture." Birk's use
of the word "still" means that Williams's "posture" hadn't changed
from the time the officer supposedly saw him "carving up that board"
– which may have been unwise, but couldn't be construed as "confrontational."
account of the inquest published by The
Stranger points out: "No witnesses reported seeing Williams
act aggressively toward Birk or anyone else. No witnesses reported
seeing a knife in Williams' hand."
that he and other police are taught the "21-foot rule," which dictates
that a knife-wielding subject should be considered a lethal threat
within the prescribed distance. But it should be remembered that
it was Birk who insisted on closing the distance. Birk also testified
that "I motioned for him to come over and talk to me. He walked
If Birk, pursuant
to the "21 foot rule," considered Williams to be a "threat," why
did the officer instruct the woodcarver to come closer? When
asked to elucidate that point, Birk stated that "if he would've
complied with that command, it would've been a sign that he was
compliant with what was going on."
if Williams had "complied" with that demand, it's entirely possible
that he would have been gunned down anyway – and that Birk would
have claimed that the victim had "threatened him" by closing the
distance between them. In any case, since Birk had already drawn
his firearm, the "21 foot rule" didn’t apply.
which was clearly scripted for him, is a splendid example of what
police call "creative writing" – or what more honest people call
perjury. He claimed that somehow, during the course of their very
brief encounter, he saw Williams become "increasingly aggressive....
His brow was furrowed, eyes were fixed in a thousand-yard stare.
His jaw was set."
In a fascinating
piece of performance art, Birk recreated for the courtroom the sullen
expression and "attack stance" that caused the valiant defender
of the public weal to soil his skivvies.
supposedly recognized and acted on these "pre-attack indicators"
within the space of about four seconds. The situation "escalated
more quickly than I had predicted," Birk insisted
on the witness stand. So this was a "split-second decision," correct?
Well – perhaps for the police officer, but not for the victim, who
according to Birk had all the time in the world to comply. "Mr.
Williams had ample opportunity to do a number of things preventing
this situation from becoming what it ultimately became," Birk declared
on the stand.
detailed description of Williams' threatening behavior is difficult
to reconcile with his own behavior in the immediate aftermath of
the shooting. Nowhere in the video recording of the incident can
Birk be heard telling other officers or onlookers that Williams
had threatened him with a knife. In his on-scene interview with
the above-mentioned Detective Mudd, Birk said nothing about "pre-attack
indicators." In his testimony at the inquest
– a pseudo-judicial procedure that is neither a criminal nor a civil
trial – Birk recited his lines like a well-rehearsed soap opera
actor, displaying the composure of a sociopath in assigning all
of the blame to the victim.
The jury at
the inquest was not convinced that Birk had told the truth about
the supposed threat posed by Williams. On February 15, Seattle PD's
Firearms Review Board ruled that the fatal shooting was "unjustified,"
and recommended that "Officer Birk must remain stripped of all Seattle
Police powers and authority, as he was on October 5th, 2010 when
he surrendered his gun and badge."
Birk had clearly
committed an act of criminal homicide, and his only "punishment"
was to be "stripped" of something nobody really possesses – the
supposed power and authority to engage in discretionary killing.
As we’ve seen
on numerous occasions, contemporary law enforcement officers are
on a war footing, which means that their default setting is "overkill."
(Birk, like so many other police officers, is a military veteran,
having served as a paralegal in the National Guard.) It likewise
means that they are functionally immune from prosecution when they
commit acts of criminal homicide.
the decision of the Firearms Review Board was made public, King
Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced
that although the murder of Williams was "troubling,"
no criminal charges would be filed against the murderer. This is
because it Satterberg believes it would be impossible to demonstrate
that the unjustified killing was the product of malice.
would be compelled to find Officer Birk not guilty," Satterberg
claimed. This should be taken as an oblique admission by Satterberg
that he would have thrown the case if it had gone to trial. The
state’s homicide statute recognizes that it is not necessary
to demonstrate malice in cases where death results from criminal
relevant section Washington’s criminal code describes an offense
called "homicide by abuse" in which one person, in
"circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human
life," causes the death of " a developmentally disabled
person"; although this statute was written to apply to cases
in which mentally handicapped or otherwise dependent people die
from prolonged mistreatment, a properly motivated prosecutor could
find a way to convince a jury that the statute should cover an incident
in which a police officer summarily executes a deaf, mentally challenged
will probably join the ever-growing ranks of "Gypsy Cops" and turn
up somewhere else swaddled in a government-provided costume and
invested with the spurious authority to kill.
is a strange, mystical property that leaves a heavy residue of privilege
even in those, like Ian Birk, from whom it is withdrawn.
would happen if the situation had been reversed on that Seattle
street corner last August 30: What if Birk had been ordered to divest
himself of his weapon by a member of the productive class? What
if Birk had been the one gunned down four seconds after that demand
had been made by someone who later claimed that he felt "threatened"
by Birk's facial expression?
Were a sanctified
personage in a police uniform to be killed in that fashion by a
Mundane who displayed no malice, D.A. Satterberg would probably
find the motivation, and summon the necessary creativity, to build
a criminal case.
a recent case of that kind in Eugene, Oregon, a woman reportedly
suffering from schizophrenia allegedly
gunned down Officer Chris Kulcullin, who – his chosen profession
aside – appears to have been a genuinely decent man, with a wife
and two children. While the specifics of that horrible episode differ
from the killing of John T. Williams, both of those incidents were
random acts of unjustified lethal violence. Ian Birk faces no criminal
Kidd, who allegedly murdered Kulcullin, has
been charged with aggravated murder, and could face the death
The only thing
separating those two acts of criminal homicide is "authority" –
that quantity, at once elusive and illusive, that supposedly elevates
the State's hired enforcers above the hoi polloi, permitting
them to inflict summary punishment on any Mundane who displays so
much as a flicker of defiance. It is this ineffable gift that allows
Ian Birk and his ilk to gun down, without serious consequence, any
Mundane who dares give them a dirty look.