Before there was Michael Brown in Ferguson, there was John T. Williams in Seattle. I’m writing this, in fact, on the four-year anniversary of the fatal shooting of Williams by Seattle police officer Ian Birk. For the past few days people have taken to Twitter to post tributes to the Native American woodcarver and clips of the Seattle police dashcam footage taken on August 30, 2010, seconds before Officer Birk killed him.
It’s been a brutal reminder. Of how little has changed. Of what, exactly, it is we’re talking about when we talk about crime in Seattle, as we do here this month.
An ugly preview of events in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer, where an officer gunned down unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Williams’s death was the set piece for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the Seattle Police Department. The DOJ’s eventual rebuke of SPD—for racially biased policing and excessive force—was likely in the cards before that, though. Recall officer Shandy Cobane, caught on tape, stomping a prone man and roaring, “I’m going to beat the [expletive] Mexican piss out of you homey. You feel me?” or, two months later, another officer filmed punching a teenage girl in the face after a jaywalking incident.
The scenes are graphic but pale compared to what we see—or rather what we don’t see—from the point of view of Ian Birk’s dashcam.
Take a look. We’re sitting in Birk’s patrol car at the corner of Boren and Howell when into the frame saunters John T. Williams, the most talented carver of totem poles in a family whose art dates back seven generations and is on display in the Smithsonian. He’d lived on the streets and battled alcoholism and severe hearing loss. He crosses the street while carving a piece of wood with his ever-present pocketknife and exits the frame on the right. Officer Birk charges from the car, pistol in hand, and then he too is out of the frame.
Then we hear it. “Hey, hey, hey, put the knife down. Put the knife down....” and the explosion of five gunshots. Also outside of the frame: Birk later telling investigators Williams displayed aggressive body language and posed a significant threat, a statement contradicted by eyewitnesses and a firearms review board finding. Two thousand miles and several years outside the frame: a boy in Missouri meets a similar fate.
Kathleen O’Toole, the new police chief, may improve things here—she helped steer Boston on the right path after similar issues plagued its police department—but until then, no conversation about crime in Seattle, with its Ted Bundys and Wah Mee massacres and stormy backdrops worthy of TV crime noir, is complete without taking into account the police department’s behavior.
For that I keep returning to the video of John T. Williams and Ian Birk.
You can play it over and over. The woodcarver keeps crossing that street and the cop, gun drawn, keeps chasing after him and out of the frame. Watching it four years later, you realize it makes no sense. It never made any sense at all.