Seattle, Stop Protesting Your Police Department!
No criminal charges.
That was the decision handed down a few weeks ago 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; the word “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 (or not); 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?
Maybe the idea of justice is nothing more than a poetic one. Maybe in this case, it’s time to accept there will be no justice.
But what about change? There have been probably half a dozen protests since the Prosecutor announced his decision. Some peaceful, others violent and destructive. All of the protesters say they want justice for John T. Williams.
So why aren’t they in Olympia?
The King County prosecutor chose not to charge Ian Birk, because, as he put it, state law allows for police officers to make deadly mistakes in good faith. If folks were really serious about changing that, they wouldn’t be breaking store windows in downtown Seattle. They’d be in Olympia talking to their lawmakers.
If the hundreds of people who have taken to the streets in the name of justice, organized a legislative day demanding the law change, they would at least be talking to the people who could make it happen.
Olympia is loath to make drastic changes to any laws all at once, but I think the change needed isn’t so drastic.
It’s fine for police officers to be protecting from prosecution for making good faith mistakes. But it’s not reasonable to protect someone from facing criminal charges because they carry a badge. The standard must be higher. The Seattle Police Departments own Fire Arms Review Panel ruled the shooting was unjustified by their standards. In incidents where the officers own department finds he or she did not behave reasonably by their standards, and therefore not in good faith, the law should allow criminal charges.
But as long as the law stays the same, any future Ian Birks in our state will get away with murder. No amount of protests will change that. No amount of protests will convince the prosecutor to change his mind. Stop making noise in the streets of Seattle. Take it to Olympia. It might make a difference.