"I clearly saw a knife in the open position when he passed in front of my patrol car," testified Officer Ian Birk today, speaking for the first time publicly on what compelled him to pull over his squad car and fatally shoot John T. Williams, a First Nations woodcarver, in what amounted to be a 10-second confrontation downtown on August 30.
"As I was stopped there [at the red light], I noticed Mr. Williams crossing in front of me. Immediately noticed based on posture and the way he was walking he was in some altered mental state, alcohol or something else," Birk said. That, combined with the open knife "were of some concern to me in a busy downtown area... The way he was carrying himself, his posture, the gait of his walk, I’ve observed this in my line of work suffering from people suffering some sort of impairment."
Birk was thoughtful, calm, and personable, often making eye contact with jurors as he answered questions posed by Miranda Young, an attorney with the King County Prosecutor's Office, and attorney Ted Buck, during the second day of the inquest into Williams' death. (More on that here, here, here, and here.) Unsurprisingly, Birk maintained throughout the questioning that he was following police training in every step of the encounter. Tomorrow, attorney Tim Ford—who's representing the Williams family and has proven to be a delightfully argumentative old hardass—will have the opportunity to question Birk.
Read Officer Birk's account of the shooting after the jump.
"That’s not a concern in and of itself," continued Birk, "but more so is the combination of that potential impairment with a knife in his hands at that time of day in that part of the city. He might be cause of concern for people in the area… there’s a lot of traffic at that time. A lot of people out and about."
Why not call for backup? "It’s actually not that uncommon to encounter somebody under these kinds of circumstances," said Birk. "There are lots of people we encounter often [like this]… but if there’s not initial warning signs, red flags, these are things that can be taken care of quickly and painlessly, without force or [taking someone] to jail."
Why pull out your gun if the intent was to talk? "It probably happens more often than some people realize," said Birk. "It’s part of our training regimen. If you have the opportunity to have your gun out, it’s important that you do so... I made an effort to get Mr. Williams' attention, and I got the impression that I did get his attention. NW corner of intersection, he glanced over his right shoulder at me, motioned for him to come over and talk to me. He walked away."
"This elevated my concern," continued Birk. "One pre-elevated attack indicator [that officers learn about in training] is conspicuous ignoring. At that time I felt that Mr. Williams was trying to avoid contact with the police intentionally. I felt I needed to raise the tone of my voice and close the space between us."
"He finally does begin to stop and turn around to face me. I became immediately concerned what his posture and demeanor was. He turned with his head first, body continued to follow. We made eye contact. He had a very stern, very serious, very confrontational look on his face. He was still holding the knife up in front of himself… in a confrontational posture. I immediately started to tell him to drop the knife, to put the knife down. At that point it became pretty serious pretty fast."
"Williams was becoming increasingly aggressive at that time," Birk testified. " There are pre-attack indicators [which mean be wary] and pre-attack postures—meaning attack is imminent." Birk explained that William was exhibiting pre-attack postures. "His brow was furrowed, eyes were fixed in a 1,000 yard star. His jaw was set. Had the knife raised up." He demonstrates a low fighting stance. "At that time I was not left with any reasonable alternative but to fire at Mr. Williams. That’s what I did. After a few moments I did notice his posture was changing and he was going to the ground."
"When I made the decision to fire and told him to put the knife down for the third time," added Birk, "I could clearly see the blade of the knife protruding from his right fist."
The knife is a key issue. It's also a confusing one. Williams was found with two knives near his body at the time of his death and its unclear exactly which one Officer Birk reportedly saw him wielding. Birk testified that Williams had the knife open in his right hand. A firefighter responding to the scene also reportedly saw an open knife next to Williams body. However, none of the witnesses interviewed reported seeing any knife—open or closed—in Williams hand. Furthermore, both knives were found in the closed position. (SPD has stated that one of the blades has a faulty locking mechanism, meaning that it could've closed on impact, but when repeatedly asked to demonstrate this faulty mechanism today, Detective Jeff Mudd found it to be working fine.)
One of Birk's quotes struck a particular chord with me. He was explaining why he needed to fire—because at the distance he was at from Williams (9.5 feet), if Williams decided to charge him with the knife, he wouldn't have time to respond: "We’re shown just how long it takes for someone to perceive something, process it, and react to it," said Birk. "Sometimes it’s just not possible to react. Whoever’s taking the action will always have advantage on whoever’s reacting. [In training] we went through exercise after exercise we were shown, action beats reaction."
Officer Birk was clearly the one acting in this 10-second encounter—from stepping out of his patrol car, to shouting, to making commands, to shooting. After listening to Birk's narrative, under these circumstances it's hard to imagine Williams having time to either comply or be aggressive. He had no time to react. He didn't stand a chance.