Disgraced former Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk had no good reason to shoot Native American wood-carver John T. Williams last fall. That much is no longer disputable. But as we've noted before, not having a good reason to kill someone is quite different than being criminally responsible for his or her death--at least for law-enforcement officers in the state of Washington. Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, however, wants to change that.
In Ian Birk's case, several areas of the law protected him from being convicted of murder or manslaughter. The law states that an officer is not guilty of a crime if he or she had "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."
Also, the law 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."
Licata has three ideas when it comes to changing how much protection officers receive from prosecution over use of deadly force. First, he says that changing the part about "malice" would go far in improving the law.
"[The law] should be calibrated more towards manslaughter than murder, as in malice which implies there was evil intent," he says. "Malice needs to be removed, as it's almost impossible to prove."
John T. Williams' death might have led to Ofc. Ian Birk being prosecuted under Councilmember Nick Licata's plan.
Removing malice from the legal equation would mean that prosecutors would no longer have to prove that an officer expressly set out to kill someone for no other reason than they wanted the person dead. They could prove that the cop's actions led to an unjustified death, and that would be that.
Second, he says that the part of the law dealing with "good faith" needs to be tightened.
Under the current law, an officer can use deadly force, no questions asked, as long as they feel their life is in danger. Licata believes that in such situations, cops should not only have to believe that their life is in danger, but have to believe that using deadly force is the only option they have to deal with it.
Licata's third and favorite idea is no doubt the most radical. He says that the state should create a new law that makes it possible to charge an officer with gross negligent homicide if he or she carries out their duties (or doesn't) with such recklessness that it gets someone killed.
"Making a new law would be a steeper political ladder," he says. "That would be looking at gross negligence to exercise professional conduct. I'd still have to look at it further. It appears that it would be a very reasonable option to consider."
Any of those three changes in the law likely could have been used to prosecute Birk.
Licata says that he's had conversations with Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes about the first two ideas, and that he's "moving along with" them.
Holmes was not immediately available for comment.
As far as law-enforcement unions, however, Licata says that will be another story
It's likely too late to get anything moving through the state legislature in the current session, but Licata says he's committed to pushing lawmakers to pass something next session.
Whether any of that will be a consolation to John T. Williams' family remains to be seen.