More than five months have passed since John T. Williams, a 50-year-old Native American woodcarver and chronic inebriate, crumpled onto the sidewalk in downtown Seattle with four bullets fired by Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk lodged in his side. Since then there have been marches, town-hall meetings, demands for SPD Chief John Diaz to step down, and the start of a federal investigation into the department's use of force. And now, on the same day it was announced that SPD's own Firearms Review Commission has deemed Birk's shooting "unjustified," we also learn there will be no criminal charges filed against the officer for killing Williams.
Afterward, SPD Chief John Diaz is also expected to announce the decision of the Firearms Review Commission, which has ruled the shooting "unjustified."
The decision not to charge Birk for a crime, frankly, was inevitable. That fact, however, will likely be of little consolation to a very large and very angry cross-section of Seattleites who have been seething for months over several high-profile instances of what looks, smells, and tastes like classic police brutality.
The fact that the shooting was deemed unjustified does free the department to take separate disciplinary steps against Birk, like demoting him, suspending him, or firing him. But even firing him is unlikely to quell the anger of groups who, even before this announcement, had been calling for heads to roll.
But while Satterberg and Diaz are likely to bear the full brunt of public rage, folks should remember that Washington's own laws protect officers like Ian Birk from prosecution over the use of deadly force, except in the most egregious of cases.
Washington law (RCW 9A.16.040) lists 10 different ways in which a peace officer can legally kill someone--one of which states that an officer can do so if 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."
Birk has long argued that he believed Birk posed a threat as he stood nine feet away giving him dirty looks while holding a dull carving blade. And that is pretty much that.
But to further this point, the law also says: "A public officer or peace officer shall not be held criminally liable for using deadly force without malice and with a good faith belief that such act is justifiable pursuant to this section."
In other words, Satterberg would have had to prove that Birk didn't actually believe Williams posed a threat and that he shot him with the direct intention of committing a crime.
Proving what anyone believes is a nearly impossible legal task. Thus, it's the law itself, more than anything else, that's keeping Birk from being held criminally liable for Williams' death.
Whether he and the rest of the department are financially liable is another story--and one that's likely not to fare as well for cops. And whether the decision leads to a large-scale shakeup at the department also remains to be seen.