What we have here is a failure to communicate.
“If there’s borderline criminal or suspicious activity, I say let it go,” union president Sgt. Rich O’Neill told Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat. “Don’t go out on a limb. It’s not worth it, because if it goes sideways, you’re going to be the latest poster child on the news.”
This passive-aggressive response is due at least in part to the fate of officer Ian Birk, who resigned from the police force after his shooting of John T. Williams was ruled unjustified by the Firearms Review Board. The Board simply could not make sense of discrepancies between Birk’s behavior and his after-the-fact testimony.
With backup only 20 seconds away, Birk emerged from his patrol car alone to contact a “suspicious person,” so far as dispatch knew. Yet his service sidearm was drawn and in a “low-ready” position. He closed distance on Williams, failed to identify himself as a police officer while ordering Williams to drop his knife, and ended up shooting Williams to death, all in a matter of seconds.
With deference to O’Neill, I want to suggest that–despite all these mistakes or lapses in judgment–had Birk not shot a man to death in the street, he would not have been the latest poster child on the news. That is the takeaway here. Few expect police to be perfect, and a police officer is generally given the benefit of the doubt. People know it’s not easy wearing blue; we all read about officers getting jumped and choked in the line of duty.
It’s hard to imagine that Williams would have made the evening news because he was “just walking down the street” when a police officer pulled out his gun and pointed it at him. “City rallies behind chronic street inebriate with knife” is not a headline you get unless something has gone terribly wrong. I am not talking about the street protests that followed the decision not to prosecute Birk for murder. I am thinking of conversations with friends who privately declared themselves grateful their run-ins with the law were not with an Officer Birk.
At his State of the City address today, Mayor McGinn touched upon the union’s apparent disconnect with the community it swears to protect: “There is no place in the Seattle Police Department for those who do not share our values. That includes our commitment to racial and social justice.” I knew Williams only by sight, I could never understand a word he said as he usually drunkenly swayed there with his hand out. Still, he was a member of the community, he lived here. That’s what, I think, people are responding to, the same way the public went out of their way to tell their local police officers thank you after the Maurice Clemmons shootings.
Conversely, as the Mayor mentioned, only 18 percent of the Seattle Police Department lives in the city. On the one hand, that leads to the theater of an officer Pomper railing in the Guild newsletter against his socialistic enemies, but more importantly, it leads to a young officer who doesn’t know who is who in the neighborhood he’s patrolling. So much depends, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams, on knowing whether that’s a woodcarver’s knife. So much depends on knowing what the right words are.