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Handcuffing the Dead

December 8, 2010

The week of Thanksgiving and during the height of the snOMG panic, Seattle attorney Tim Ford dealt a severe blow to Seattle and its police department.

Ford represents the family of First Nations wood carver John T. Williams, fatally shot be rookie cop Ian Burk in August.

In a series of court filings, attorney Ford released among other things, still pictures of the patrol cars dash board cam showing the disheveled older man as he shuffled slowly across the street.  He also included audio from police radios immediately following the shooting, eyewitness statements given to police and transcripts of 911 calls made by bystanders.

The information is shocking. Officer Birk can be heard telling dispatchers he’s just shot a man who refused to drop a knife.  Eyewitnesses say 5 shots were fired.  The King County Medical Examiner confirmed 4 of those shots hit John Williams in his side- proof, the family says, that he was not facing Officer Birk. Birk’s attorney insists Williams lunged at the officer, and brandished the open blade in a threatening manner. Yet, photos from the scene show the knife closed on the ground where Williams dropped it after he was shot.

On the one hand, Officer Birk’s lawyer says the knife was old and worn, and could have snapped shut when it hit the ground. On the other hand, he wants us to believe the same old and worn knife was a deadly weapon used to threaten his client.

A second officer reported to dispatch the scene was under control after the shooting.  He asked for medics to come to the scene, noting Williams was not breathing and had no pulse. He also noted Williams was in handcuffs by then.

Shot four times. Not breathing. No pulse. Yet they handcuffed him? Was he a threat to the officers, himself or the general public, dead on the street?

The inquest into the shooting is scheduled for January.  We already know the Seattle Police Department’s fire arms review panel has ruled the shooting was not justified. That’s just one step of many.  It will be months before we find out if Officer Birk will face criminal charges for his actions.

Seattle, we have a problem.

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