Today attorney Tim Ford, representing the family of deceased man John T. Williams, spent the morning pointing out failed training and inconsistencies in the testimony of Officer Ian Birk, a two-year veteran of the police force who ultimately shot and killed Williams in a fast and violent altercation last summer.
Ford: Seattle Police are trained to give a warning before they fire, correct?
Birk: That is part of our training, correct.
Ford: Did you ever say [to Mr. Williams], "put the knife down or I’ll shoot?"
Birk: There was a lot going on. I did the best I could under the circumstances.
Ford: You could’ve said, "or I’ll shoot."
Birk: I said everything I could’ve said under the circumstances.
Ford: You could say [put the knife down] three times but you couldn’t add "or I’ll shoot?"
Birk: The concern was basically immediate and I needed to respond as fast as possible... There was no intent on my part to kill Mr. Williams. My intent was to stop the threat. We don’t decide who lives or dies. It’s a terrible thing.
Like the two previous days of the public inquest into Williams' death (more on that here, here, here, here, and here), the courtroom was packed with off-duty officers, family of both Birk and Williams, Native Americans, and a few anti-police protesters, wearing 'stop police brutality' pins or red tears drawn on their cheeks.
Many of these people were shuffled to an overflow room, located one floor above, to watch Ford interrogate Birk. Among the inconsistencies that Ford highlighted in Birk's version of events: that before yesterday, Birk never stated that Williams turned his head, saw Birk as he was yelling "Hey!", and then continued to walk away, prompting Birk to pursue him; that Birk kept walking towards Williams as he turned (belying the notion that Birk considered him to be a real threat); that officer Birk fired at Williams without giving him any sort of verbal warning; and that—despite stating that Williams was brandishing a blade at him, two closed knives were found with Williams' body. The entire encounter between Birk and Williams took place in 10 seconds (video here).
Ford: Did [Williams] have time to close the knife after you shot him?
Birk: I have no idea... It was difficult if not impossible to focus on Mr. Williams and the knife and my gun at once.
Ford: You pointed the knife out to other officers arriving at the scene…. Are you now suggesting that Mr. Williams had another knife in his hand and put it in his pocket after you shot him for Mr. Mudd [the lead homicide investigator] to find later?
Birk: I would make no such suggestion. My understanding is that a fire medic found an open knife immediately adjacent to Mr. Williams body.
Ford: When you saw it did you think, "My god the knife was closed?"
Birk: Nothing that specific... It did surprise me, having just seen officer Williams with the knife in his hand.
Ford: You kept walking [towards Williams] as you said, "put the knife down" how many times?
Birk: My recollection is that I stopped moving as soon as I could perceive that he was still holding the knife.
Ford: You shot after the third order. Did Mr. Williams have time to comply between the second and third order?
Birk: Mr. Williams had ample opportunity to do a number of things preventing this situation from becoming what it ultimately became.
Ford: You didn’t ever say stop, did you?
Birk: I don’t believe I ever did, no.
Ford: You’re trained to ask a man with a knife to come towards you?
Birk: Of course, if he would’ve complied with that command, it would’ve been a sign that he was compliant with what was going on.
Ford: It’s a terrible thought to think that you killed that man if he was trying to comply with your orders and close that knife, isn’t it?
Birk: Well sir, I think it’s been made very clear that the whole circumstances are troubling for everyone involved.
Officer Birk testified that Williams exhibited pre-attack postures (meaning an attack is imminent) in the seconds leading up to the shooting—namely, that as Williams, a man Birk estimated to be around 5'7" inches and a slight to medium build—turned towards Birk, his "brow was furrowed, his eyes fixed in a 1,000-yard stare, his jaw was set. He had the knife raised up... his weight dropped and he lowered his center of gravity," as testified Birk yesterday. Today Ford had him demonstrate—repeatedly—what a set jaw, furrowed brow, and 1,000-yard stare look like, causing bitter laughter to erupt in the overflow room. Birk looked ridiculous. "If only looks could kill," muttered one spectator.
Ford: [While in your patrol car] Were you noticing he was Native American?
Birk: I wouldn't have been surprised that he was Asian or Pacific Islander... He didn’t appear to be Caucasian if that’s what you’re driving at, sir.
Throughout his questioning, Ford has subtly played the angle that Birk targeted Williams because he was a minority. He has Birk read from his official statement of the incident, which was taken on August 30, 2010 10:00 p.m.—roughly six hours after the shooting. In the first paragraph, Birk reads that he noticed Williams because the area is full of trespassers, strangers, and narcotic users. Then Birk notes that the "individual appeared to be a Native American male."
Birk: What’s important of course isn’t what his ethnicity is, it’s his behavior which I tried to outline.
Ford plays the in-car video of the event again and again for the courtroom. He highlights a woman saying, right before the two-minute mark, "why did you shoot that man? He didn't do anything!" to which Birk responds, "Ma'am, he had a knife and he wouldn't drop it."
Ford: Not “he threatened me with a knife.” You didn’t say, “He wasn’t about to attack me with a knife."
Birk: Being addressed by a citizen… it was not the time to go into detail about what happened.
Ford: You didn’t say, when talking to another officer [also heard in the video], “he tried to attack me.”
Birk: We’re trying to move through the process as quickly as possible. When speaking with another police officer, it's not the time to go through the specifics of what happened. [Saying he wouldn't drop the knife] gives them enough of an idea of what’s going on. The time and circumstances wouldn’t have been appropriate to go into details.
Ford: [When Det. Mudd arrives, who's investigating the homicide] You never told him, “I thought he was going to attack me,” you said nothing about pre-attack indicators.
Birk: I believe it was clear to Det. Mudd that was clear.
Ford: But he was trying to investigate the facts of the case, wasn’t he? ...Your statement also says Williams shows complete disregard for your presence while crossing the street. Did you expect a Native American to react in some way to the presence of a police officer?
Birk: No, I was just merely trying to point out that he seemed very preoccupied with what he was doing and unaware with his surroundings.
Ford: The other people crossing in front of your patrol car, did they show a complete disregard for your presence?
Birk: I suppose they did but not in the same sense that Mr. Williams was doing so.
Ford: All of that—continuing [to walk], the jaw setting, the stern expression all happened between the first and second “put the knife down.”
Ford has Birk read from his statement: "The individual continued to stare right at me as I loudly ordered him to drop the knife a second time."
Ford: If someone asks you to put your gun down, would you drop it?
Birk: Depending on the circumstances.
Ford: You didn’t say [to Williams], as in your statement, to drop the knife.
Birk: I recalled the events to the best of my ability.
Ford: All of that, all of those events—fist clenching, attack preparation, tightly clenched knife, thousand yard stare, formulating a plan—all occurred between the second and third “put the knife down.”
Birk: All of these things were happening at once. Yes, all of those things can happen very quickly.
Ford: In the two seconds between the time you said, "put the knife down" and you shot he became a lethal threat to you?
Birk: Yes sir. A threat can go from non lethal to lethal certainly in a few seconds.
Ford: You testified that Mr. Williams was staring right at you [when you fired]?
Birk: That’s what I recollect, yes sir.
Ford: Do you know why, then, the bullet passed through the right cheek and out his left cheek?
Buck objects to the question. It's sustained; Birk doesn't have to answer.
Ford's questioning was right on target. It strains the bounds of logic to think that a man crossing the street, a man who was perceived by a police officer to be in an altered state—either drunk, on drugs, or mentally impaired—who was oblivious to the officer because he was preoccupied, would swing around, see that officer, and instantly assume an attack position—all in under 10 seconds. I just don't buy it.