Chief Diaz: I totally got this one you guys.
  • Chief Diaz: "I totally got this one you guys."
Following on the heels of Satterberg's decision not to press criminal charges against Seattle police officer Ian Birk for killing John T. Williams, Police Chief John Diaz committed today to disciplining Birk by mid-March. The one-month lag, he says, is a procedural necessity—the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) must finish reviewing Birk’s case and make its discipline recommendation before Diaz can act.

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“The OPA has been monitoring the process, waiting as policy dictates for the decision from the KC prosecutor,” said Diaz. “This matter is now in the hands of the police, and as the police chief of this city, the outcome of this belongs to me.”

Diaz acknowledged that a month’s lapse in disciplining Birk won’t appeal to people chomping at the bit to see Birk punished, but stressed that “short-cutting” departmental procedures could result in a decision that could be appealed, even overturned, by Birk.

Diaz wouldn’t say whether or not it was his intention to fire Birk. But it doesn’t look good for the officer.

At the presser today, Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer, heading the Seattle Police Department’s Firearms Review Board (FRB), confirmed the board’s preliminary findings (which were leaked last October) that Birk’s shooting of Williams was entirely unjustified. The FRB urged today that Birk must remain stripped of his badge, gun, and authority as a Seattle police officer until the OPA makes its discipline recommendation.

The FRB, which reviews every instance where an on-duty officer’s firearm is discharged, found that Officer Ian Birk made reckless, serious, significant failures in following police policy and protocol.

“John T. Williams did not complete an attack sufficient to justify a use of deadly force,” said Kimerer. “John T. Williams had not even moved into a position where he could’ve gone into a straight line, a position of attack.”

The FRB’s report (.pdf) is a pretty damning, scathing review of Birk’s actions, and for once it's coming from other ranking officers—his bosses and peers. They pretty much condemn his actions from the moment he alighted from his patrol car.

The FRB found that Birk failed to properly inform dispatch that he was preparing to confront a suspect with a knife. Birk also failed to assess the risks in contacting Williams, who had a knife. “Birk’s actions—rather than his testimony alone—are contradictory,” the report states. “At various times he testified that his attempt to contact Williams was part of a community caretaking function. On the other hand, Officer Birk emerged from his patrol vehicle with his handgun at the low ready position, which is not consistent with an assessment that he was confronting a non-threatening scenario.”

Birk also failed to identify himself as a police officer. He failed to provide Williams with sufficient direction to control the situation.

Citizens should not be expected to obey people who don’t identify themselves as Seattle police officers,” said Kimerer who stresses, “The fact of the matter is, there’s a clear training and policy procedural guideline that every officer—from the most basic rookie to a seasoned officer—knows. ‘Stop. Police. Show me your hands.’ It is the most basic obligation of a police officer to identify who you are and what you want that person to do.”

And perhaps most damning, the review board found that the 21-foot rule (a nationally recognized training rule that stipulates an officer should keep a distance of 21 feet between himself and a suspect armed with an edged weapon, like a knife) was not sufficient justification for Birk to shoot Williams. Birk and Williams were a mere nine feet from each other when Birk opened fire, and Birk has repeatedly used the rule to justify shooting Williams. “This is not an adequate explanation to use deadly force,” says Kimerer. “Bottom line: [Birk] closed the gap himself. He even called Williams to him.”

To sum it up: “These are among the most egregious failings that I’ve seen,” said Kimerer. “What we were seeing was an outcome that could’ve been avoided… The image of John T. Williams is indelibly edged in our minds with grief and regret.”

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The seven-member review board was unanimous in all of the findings. This is the board’s first unjustified finding for a fatal shooting since the 1970’s.

When asked point-blank if Birk should be fired, Kimerer says, “That’s not a decision that’s within my jurisdiction to make. The process should be scrupulously followed. I’m not going to short-circuit that. The end of this process must be a defensible personnel action. But these are damning findings. We deplore, decry, and seriously question the actions of Officer Birk on August 30.”

Before discipline is meted, Birk is entitled to be interviewed by the OPA and state his case. He also has the opportunity to have one last opportunity to sit down and tell his story to the one person who has the authority to fire him—namely Chief Diaz.