To the great surprise of no one here at Seattle Weekly, now-former Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk escaped charges this week for unjustifiably shooting Native American woodcarver John T. Williams back in August. Washington law is pretty specific about when a cop can be charged with a crime for shooting a civilian in the line of duty (almost never), and we pointed that out in this article. An astute reader took issue with our (and King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg's) interpretation of the law, and made a great point doing so.
Washington law (RCW 9A.16.040 to be exact) says, among other things, that an officer can shoot anyone so long as he or she has: "probable cause to believe that the suspect, if not apprehended, poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or a threat of serious physical harm to others."
We pointed out the believe part of the law, since Birk has long argued that he "believed" Williams posed a threat, though he was basically doing nothing more than holding a knife and looking mean.
A reader, "strayling," then wrote:
I think you emphasised [sic] the wrong part of the law. It looks better this way:
"probable cause to believe that the suspect, if not apprehended, poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or a threat of serious physical harm to others."
We can't know his belief, but we can determine probable cause. The officer should be prosecuted on that basis.
Indeed, probable cause is that tricky bit of gray area that often gives lawyers enough wiggle room to say "Sure, you thought that, but was there enough evidence for you to think it?"
In not charging Birk, Satterberg argued that there wasn't enough evidence to say Birk didn't "in good faith" believe Williams posed a threat.
But if he'd really wanted to step up to the plate and charge him, it would have been the probable-cause pitch that he would have likely had to hit--which, incidentally is screwier than a Tim Lincecum slider.