Officer Birk Says Training Led Him to Shoot John T. Williams

by on January 12, 2011

John T. Williams has less than 30 seconds to live in this picture.

At the ongoing inquest into the August 30, 2010, shooting death of Native American wood carver and (I think it’s fair to say) chronic alcoholic John T. Williams, officer Ian Birk has testified that he had “no doubt in my mind that an attack was coming” based on his reading of Williams’ body language and face (clenched jaw, thousand-yard stare).

Today, witnesses who were in the area are testifying that they did not perceive Williams as aggressive, so much as Birk. At Seattlepi.com, you read that “Birk testified he thought the incident would end with a conversation, but ‘it became pretty serious pretty fast.'”

In the video below, taken from the dashboard camera of Birk’s patrol vehicle, you can see Williams making his way across the street, in a crosswalk, at 51 seconds in. Birk exits his vehicle and crosses in front of it at 1:03, some twelve seconds later. He’s walking with speed and his gun appears to be out and in his hand. So while it is not clear how he thought the conversation would go, the situation seems to have become serious to him very early on, before confronting Williams.



The confrontation, in total, is again just four seconds and occurs off-camera. You can hear Birk say, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Put the knife down! Put the knife down! Put the knife down!” and then five shots ring out. Weirdly, even that is suspect. After the shooting, only four casings were found, and Birk’s gun, which should have 15 total, had 11 bullets in it. Backup arrives just one minute after the shots fired call goes out over the radio.

The 27-year-old Birk, who has since been relieved of his badge, had only been on the force two years. (He’s also an Army National Guardsman, though he is not a PTSD case fresh from Iraq, despite what you may have read elsewhere.) Also, despite what you may think, it’s possible to watch this video and still back officer Birk; as this thread at Officer.com illustrates, you just have to be a police officer. 

The mindset of law enforcement is the subject of Dominic Holden’s article “What Some Seattle Cops Think the Problem Is.” Holden has been perusing the newspaper of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, and discovering that officers like to refer to the people of Seattle as “sheep.” It’s also instructive of something that Guild president Rich O’Neill sees the shooting as a teachable moment: “It is an excellent opportunity to teach the masses [Ed.: That’s you and me, reader!] how to act when they encounter the police.”

In another column, an officer complains that “Seattle proper has come to believe they are truly in charge of us,” and opines about strategically accepting a preferred form of civilian oversight, rather than let clueless civilians monkey around with the police department. (That is not to mention the officer who feels that a class on racial profiling is a socialistic assault on the U.S. constitution.) 

In this particular case, I would think that at least equal time should be given to officer Birk’s contention that his training left him “no reasonable option” but to kill Williams. Far from a knife being openly brandished, subsequent analyses of the video can neither confirm nor deny that Williams has a knife open, and no one in the vicinity has yet testified that Williams threatened them.

None of us can say what Williams was doing in those crucial four seconds, true. But I am troubled by the general claim that police training requires officers to court danger in precisely the way Birk did. If so, O’Neill is absolutely correct. We do all need to know that we’re four seconds away from being shot four (or five) times. 

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One thought on “Officer Birk Says Training Led Him to Shoot John T. Williams

  1. Wasn’t it Flip Wilson who was always claiming ‘Devil made me do it!’. Of course, he was trying to be funny.

    If the cops think this has taught us anything, they’ve probably misinterpreted the lesson.