Police Killing of Native Woodcarver Results in $1.5 Million Civil Rights Settlement and Changes to Seattle Police Department

Civil Rights, Police Misconduct

John T. Williams was a seventh generation Nitinaht carver of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations.  On August 30, 2010, he was shot and killed by Seattle police officer Ian Birk, who had stopped him on the street because he was carrying a piece of cedar and a carving knife.  Birk claimed that he told Mr. Williams to stop and drop his knife, but John turned on him in a threatening manner, with his knife upright and open.  To back up Birk’s story, the day after the shooting the Seattle Police Department released a photo to the press showing John’s knife open and displayed against a police ruler.

The Williams family hired MHB attorneys Tim Ford and Andrea Brenneke days after the shooting.  Because the shooting occurred in broad daylight, in front of numerous civilian witnesses, questions quickly arose about Birk’s claim that he was threatened.  Because of that, and recognizing the many ways the incident had impacted the City and its First Nations inhabitants, MHB took a three-pronged approach:  furthering the investigation, healing the wounds, and obtaining compensation and justice for the family’s loss

The investigation was initially channeled through the King County inquest process.  Preparing for the inquest, the City was forced to disclose photographs that showed that the carving knife that they had shown the press with its blade open actually was found closed, lying next to Mr. Williams’ body.  Pathology reports from the County Medical Examiner showed that the trajectories of all four bullets that struck Mr. Williams passed through his body from right to left, belying Birk’s claims that Mr. Williams had turned toward him and faced him threateningly.  Most damning of all, the dashcam video from Birk’s patrol vehicle showed Mr. Williams  crossing the street, threatening no one, before Birk shouted at him to drop his knife and then shot him in seconds later. 

The inquest verdict was inconclusive but exposed even more questions about Birk’s conduct and his version of the events.  The Williams family then turned to the King County Prosecutor’s Office; seeking justice in a criminal prosecution.  The King County Prosecuting Attorney declined to file charges against Officer Birk, claiming that Washington law on police use of deadly force was too restrictive to allow them.  But the day the Prosecutor announced that decision, Seattle Police Chief John Diaz announced that Officer Birk was being fired because of his conduct.  Reflecting the spirit of reconciliation in which the case had been developed, the day the firing was announced Chief Diaz met at MHB with members of the Williams family to express his condolences and the City’s apologies for Officer Birk’s actions.

The City and the Williams family then took the matter to mediation which resulted in a monetary payment to the family of $1,500,000 and an agreement by the City to support a memorial to John T. Williams’ life.  That agreement was fulfilled when a totem pole honoring John T. Williams was carved on the Seattle waterfront by members of the Williams family and First Nations carvers from around the Northwest, and then carried by hundreds of supporters to a spot the Seattle Center next to the Space Needle, where it stands today.

John T. Williams’ case left other legacies as well.  It spawned a federal investigation which led to the filing of a lawsuit against the City by the United States Government, which has dramatically altered Seattle police training and use of force policies.  And it led to sustained community activism focused on the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s decision not to file charges against Officer Birk, which in 2017 resulted in an initiative to the legislature which changed Washington’s law to make police more accountable for their use of deadly force. 

Attorneys who worked on this case:

Tim Ford

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