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January 13, 2012 at 1:45 PM

Former SPD officer Ian Birk will not face charges in shooting of woodcarver

Ian Birk

Federal prosecutors will not charge former Seattle police Officer Ian Birk in the shooting death of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams.

Sources have confirmed that a grand jury reviewing the Aug. 30, 2010, shooting determined it could not charge the officer in the death.

The Department of Justice last April announced it would review the shooting after King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said that state law precluded him from charging former Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk with a crime.

The federal investigation examined whether former Officer Ian Birk violated the civil rights of Williams when he shot and killed him on a downtown city sidewalk. Williams, who was a well-known public inebriate and was hard of hearing, did not respond to Birk’s repeated demands that he drop a pocket knife he was carrying. A department review of the shooting found that Birk acted outside the department’s “policy, tactics and training” when he shot Williams four times just seconds after exiting his police vehicle.

The federal investigation was separate from a probe into the Seattle Police Department by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, which concluded last month that the SPD has a “pattern and practice” of using illegal, excessive force. Most of the victims of that abuse, the DOJ said, were people of color, the mentally ill and those under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The DOJ concluded that there was not sufficient data to determine whether the department engages in biased policing, but said the incomplete evidence was troubling.

Satterberg announced in February that the state could not charge Birk because the law required prosecutors to show the officer acted with malice and without good faith. Birk, 28, who had been an officer for two years, resigned from after Satterberg’s announcement. The City of Seattle settled with Williams’ family for $1.5 million.

Williams’ shooting resulted in a public outrage and was pivotal in uniting community groups to demand accountability from the department. There had been earlier videotaped incidents — an officer slugging a teenage jaywalker, for instance — but none reverbated in the community like the patrol-car dash-cam video of Williams ambling across the intersection in front of Birk’s car, a pocket knife and board in his hands. Birk was seen crossing in front of the car, in pursuit, his weapon drawn, and then a series of shots a few seconds later. Native American and civil rights groups protested the shooting

The department’s credibility was further damaged when it had to withdraw a statement made at the scene that Williams had advanced on the officer. An King County Inquest jury was divided over the question of whether Birk felt he was threatened when he fired.

The shooting was a pivotal in the decision by the Washington Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to send a letter in  late 2010, signed by 34 Seattle-area community groups, asking the DOJ to investigate the SPD. The DOJ announced its civil investigation last April, and at the same time confirmed that a separate criminal probe was ongoing into the Williams shooting.

The DOJ report, issued last month, found that use-of-force issues in the department were exacerbated by the fact that nearly a third of its officers had less than three years on the force.

Update 3:43 p.m.

For more, read our updated story.

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Comments | More in The Blotter | Topics: Ian Birk, John T. Williams, police


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