Seattle Demands Answers After Cop Shoots Native American Man

The incident marks the city's fifth fatal shooting in a week.

By Julianne Hing Sep 08, 2010

On Tuesday, people crowded around the Seattle street corner where an American Indian man named John T. Williams was killed last week by the police. Protesters chanted and held signs that read: "SPD: Shoot People Dead."

Officer Ian Birk, a two-year vet with the force, shot four rounds at Williams on August 30 on the corner of Boren and Howell because Williams supposedly would not obey Birk’s demands to drop a 3-inch folding knife and a piece of wood he had in his hands. Friends of Williams, who was a Ditidaht member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations from Vancouver Island in Canada, say he was deaf in one ear and weakened by years of illness, often disoriented from drinking. The fifty-year-old man was a totem carver who sold his work at the open-air Pike Place market in Seattle.

He died in between the market and 1811 Eastlake, a home for chronic drinkers that he lived at on and off. Eyewitnesses contradicted police reports, saying that Williams was neither threatening nor advancing toward Birk. A portion of the incident was caught on an in-car police camera but has not been released to the public. Last week, Seattle police conceded that they were unsure whether or not Williams was advancing toward Birk with his knife as they originally reported.

Since the shooting, Native American groups have demanded an investigation and better training for Seattle police officers that included some cultural awareness. Hundreds, including Seattle mayor Mike McGinn, joined memorial services last week.

Williams was not the only cop shooting victim in Seattle last week. By Sunday, Seattle police had killed five people in five separate incidents over the course of a week. Last Thursday, Seattle police officer Shandy Cobane, who was caught on camera in April kicking a Latino man and video camera shouting racial profanities, was cleared of hate crime charges.

Seattle PD are doing the usual post-shooting head-scratching, wondering if better training is needed for the city’s police officers. Police Chief John Diaz was confirmed earlier this year in part because of the visible role he played as interim chief during the Cobane fiasco. Seattle is looking to him to bring the transparency and accountability he promised as a candidate.