Wednesday night, as hundreds marched in downtown Seattle streets protesting the lack of charges against Ian Birk, the Seattle officer who fatally shot Native American woodcarver John T. Williams, a few made threats and called for violence against Birk.
But Williams’ older brother has not advocated violence, and previously said he’s still friendly with police — through he’s frustrated with the legal system and shooting.
“I’m impressed with John T. Williams’ brother,” Seattle Police Officers Guild President Rich O’Neill said Thursday, mentioning Rick Williams’ actions at a recent police forum. “He seems to be a person who is very reasonable.”
At the Feb. 3 city hall forum, two men had removed from the overflow meeting after launching expletive-laced tirades at Police Chief John Diaz. Next to the panel of eight speakers was a poster calling Birk a murderer.
Then people dressed in black, including some who distributed the anarchist material, marched inside, chanting “cops, pigs, murder, murder.”
Rick Williams went outside the meeting room, grabbed two of them and insisted they leave. Back inside, Williams overturned the sign calling Birk a murderer.
At the conclusion of the Williams shooting inquest — one in which only one juror thought John T. Williams was a threat — Rick Williams scolded a woman who yelled for justice. He told the woman that he would speak on behalf of his late brother, not her.
Rick Williams said after the inquest that he said he still talks to police officers.
“Now I walk up and say, ‘How are you today? I don’t hate you all,'” he said. “I just feel bad for the decision that youngster made.”
Police have been aware of some threats of violence against Birk, who was 27 and was in his second year with the department when the shooting occured. A few threats were made at the protest Wednesday, but other protesters advocated non-violence. There were no arrests or property damage reported.
“Anytime there are threats of violence people are concerned about it,” O’Neill said. “We’ve seen where some deranged types can be influenced by these fringe groups who scream their rhetoric.”
On Feb. 12, a demonstration motivated by the Williams case ended with a patrol car window smashed and demonstrators preventing officers from reaching the suspect. Two others were arrested.
“Generally speaking, they’re not representative of the larger group,” Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said of that protest and the one Wednesday night.
O’Neill said some elected leaders don’t realize they’re being used by a small group of vocal protestors following the Williams case — including some who have been protesting different causes for decades.
The police forum earlier this month was not representative of Seattle, he said. O’Neill said people would benefit more from a true dialogue in a neighborhood such as Ballard, West Seattle or the Rainier Valley.
In the weeks after the Aug. 30 shooting, Seattle police Chief John Diaz gave a “direct line” to members of Williams’ family to call if they felt they needed to “raise concerns about negative interactions with police.”
It was one of the unconventional steps Diaz took in the wake of the shooting to reach out to Williams’ grieving family members and other Native Americans. In another unusual move, the Seattle department’s top commanders met face-to-face in a “restorative circle” with Williams’ brothers to hear concerns in the tragedy’s aftermath, and agreed to explore improving training and cultural competency for officers, said Kathryn Olson, the civilian director of the Office of Professional Accountability, which oversees internal investigations.
Birk, who resigned Wednesday, is expected to face civil litigation. Mayor Mike McGinn said Wednesday he is concerned about the age of some officers in recent high-profile incidents and training is something to be reviewed.
Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer said the current recruits are some of the best he’s seen, and only a small number have concerning actions — a number he said would be comparable in any industry.
But Kimerer also gave an unflattering description of Birk’s actions, calling many of his moves “egregious” and noted the Firearms Review Board report was the most damning one he’d seen in three decades.
Birk should have called for backup, didn’t properly assess the risks and shouldn’t have used deadly force, the review board concluded.
Four of the eight jurors, who answered 13 inquest questions, said they believed Birk thought Williams posed a threat. Four couldn’t determine whether he did.
Answering another question, only one juror believed that Williams actually posed a threat. Four said he didn’t, and three said they couldn’t determine.
The slaying was the most publicized of a series of violent interactions between Seattle police and citizens that prompted the ACLU and 34 other organizations to call for a federal investigation of the department.
“People who call him a murderer and a racist and a liar don’t know him, they just saw a snipped of video,” O’Neill said. “He’s a good person.
“Did he make some tactical mistakes? Perhaps. But that doesn’t make you a villain.”
Satterberg said after the shooting inquest that he didn’t think jurors would believe beyond a reasonable doubt that Birk acted with malice, and cited a state law which says officers can’t be held criminally liable for using deadly force if they acted in good faith and without malice.
That drew criticism from the Williams family attorney, Tim Ford, and City Councilman Bruce Harrell, also a lawyer. Ford did not return a call for comment Thursday.
Birk’s attorney, Ted Buck, said Wednesday the resignation came as “a direct result of the emotional trauma that has come from this tragic event.” The move was Birk’s choice and has brought him some relief, O’Neill said.
McGinn noted in a press conference Wednesday that there’s a loss of faith between citizens and the police department. He vowed to do all is his power to restore it and said he needed help from the police union.
“Eventually things will get back to normal,” O’Neill said, discussing the recent protests. “As normal as Seattle gets.”