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This Cop Shot and Killed an Armed Man; Was He Wrong?

This Seattle cop shot and killed a man wielding a knife. Why all the controversy?


Seattle police officer Ian Birk shot and killed a Native-American man named John T. Williams in August 2010. As the story goes, Williams, who was homeless, was carrying a large knife when Birk approached him, demanding three times that Williams "put the knife down" (you can hear clearly hear Birk making this demand in the video above). When Williams didn't throw down his weapon, Birk shot him five times, killing him instantly.

If it sounds like an open-and-shut case—a man wielding a knife approaches a cop, who shoots him after telling him to drop his knife—it's not. For one thing, it turned out that Williams was carrying the knife because he was a woodcarver by trade. For another, witnesses testified that Williams actually had his back to Birk when Birk approached him, gun drawn. Birk claimed Williams lunged at him in an aggressive manner, but, when ambulances arrived, it was discovered that Williams' knife was actually closed.

For the past several months, Birk has faced a string of formal and informal inquests into the shooting. In January a jury that carried no legal weight convened to consider the case. They ended up split: Four of the eight jurors said they believed Birk thought Williams posed a threat, while four couldn't determine whether he did. Only one juror actually believed Williams was a danger to Birk.

But now the King County prosecutor's office has spoken, and they're letting Birk walk. Despite protesters calling for Birk to be charged with murder, authorities say the evidence isn't there to make the case. According to Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, "Birk made 'serious tactical errors' but the evidence did not show that the officer acted with malice toward Williams."

Though Birk was never brought up an any charges whatsoever, pressure from his colleagues and guilt appear to have gotten the best of him. Following the prosecutor's decision, he promptly resigned, effective immediately.

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