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A Killer and A Free Man

February 22, 2011

No criminal charges.

That was the decision handed down by King County Prosecutor Dan Sattaberg in the police-shooting death of John T. Williams last August.

By now it’s a horrific story we’re all too familiar with. Officer Ian Birk crossed paths with Williams that fateful summer afternoon, just after the accomplished wood carver slowly moved across a downtown Seattle street.

Seconds later, Williams lay dying, shot four times by the young, callow officer.

Local mainstream media’s initial reaction was to sleepwalk through their coverage of another police-shooting of another man of color. They assumed Williams was in the wrong. They allowed the police department to spoon-feed them Birk’s account of being lunged at by a man with an open knife. They wanted everyone to know the Native man was a drunk; “inebriate” became Williams’ surname.

Neither the police department, the Mayor’s office or the media were prepared for what came next: witnesses to the shooting. A family in mourning and yet more than capable of defending the honor of the man they loved so much. A larger Native community galvanized by sorrow and outrage.

We watched as Mayor McGinn struggled to strike the balance between compassion for the Williams family -and indeed the entire greater-Seattle Native community- and a police department with a balky, status quo Chief and an intractable police union president.

Since then, the Department’s Fire Arms Review Panel determined the shooting was unjustified. An inquest panel handed down mixed yet nonetheless damning opinions about Birk’s actions.

All the while a city debated about the facts of the case and what should be done next. So many, myself included, wanted justice.

But what is justice? I’m not sure I know the answer. For some, it’s an eye for an eye. For others, a lengthy prison sentence, or a wrongful death finding by a civil jury.

The very frustrating thing about justice; it often comes only after injustice. Justice can’t bring brother Williams back to his family. It cannot undo the horrors of that fateful day, or alleviate the antipathy so many feel towards the police.

I’ll give Prosecutor Satteburg the benefit of the doubt; he didn’t arrive at his decision easily. He weighed the evidence carefully.

Deliberative methods aside, the rub is persistent, isn’t it?

Satteburg said the law allows for a police office to make a mistake. Killing Williams was an “oops,” but only because Birk was a cop. The law that could have brought justice instead provided a safety net, protecting Birk from any chance of ever going to prison.

We can expect wrongful death lawsuits in the near future. The city’s insurance company will probably settle out of court. Ian Birk, who resigned last week, will never again work as a police officer.

Do any of those things amount to justice?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2011 11:29 am

    Since fI thought it was a foregone conclusion that Birk would never face jail time, I was very relieved when he resigned. He’ll never be a cop again. That’s a small comfort to me.

  2. jneen permalink
    March 2, 2011 5:35 pm

    i’m not sure i know the answer to what justice would look like in this case either… however i would have felt more satisfied if Birk was fired – assuming (or rather hoping) that after the OPA investigation and the Chief’s decision that would have been the case. THEN he would not be able to work as a police officer… in our state. As it stands, unless he is de-certified he can continue to work as a police officer in other counties… in OUR STATE.

  3. public administrator permalink
    March 6, 2011 6:08 pm

    I really can’t blame King County Prosecuting Attorney Satterberg for not filing a case. Proving intent on the part of Officer Ian Birk is nearly impossible and having a show trial serves no one’s interest.

    What is disappointing was that neither our Mayor or Chief Diaz had the stones to hold a press conference simultaneously announcing that Birk was fired. Since the inquest had determined weeks beforehand that the shooting was unjustified there was plenty of cause for termination.

    Canning him would be a rare display of swift action on the part of government; anywhere else you make a big mistake your ass is fired promptly. McGinn is already a bomb thrower who will never have the support of the police guild, and they would have a hard time disputing the dismissal in the court of public opinion. Further by firing Birk, McGinn would be raising a middle finger to Councilman Tim Burgess, former cop who’s rumored to considering a run for mayor.

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