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Originally published September 3, 2010 at 2:05 PM | Page modified September 4, 2010 at 4:43 PM

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Corrected version

Native American leaders call for probe into shooting death

Calling the fatal shooting of a First Nations carver by a Seattle police officer unjustified, Native American and Canadian First Nations leaders gathered at a news conference Friday to demand a full investigation into the shooting death, as well as changes in the department.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Calling the fatal shooting of a First Nations carver by a Seattle police officer unjustified, Native American and Canadian First Nations leaders gathered at a news conference Friday to demand a full investigation into the shooting death, as well as changes in the department.

John T. Williams, 50, a member of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Dititdaht First Nations people on Vancouver Island, was killed by officer Ian Birk Monday afternoon. Birk saw Williams with a knife and repeatedly ordered him to drop it just before shooting Williams four times from a distance of 9 to 10 feet.

Williams, it turned out, was a First Nations totem carver carrying a 3-inch folding knife, and a chronic inebriate who had told people he was deaf in one ear, and often had trouble understanding what was said to him.

"He also was wearing ear buds," Williams' younger brother Eric said Friday. He wore a headband to the news conference with a button reading "Warning, police in area," depicting a man pointing a gun at another.

Williams' shooting has grieved and stirred the urban Indian community and advocates for people of color, who packed the news conference and turned out by the hundreds for a peaceful candlelight vigil in front of the Chief Seattle Club Thursday night — Mayor Mike McGinn was photographed at the vigil holding a candle, too.

Williams was a member of the club, a private nonprofit providing hot meals and social services for Native American and First Nations people. He lived at 1811 Eastlake, a private nonprofit home for chronic drinkers.

Several reviews are underway into the shooting, and speakers Friday demanded an inquest panel charged with investigating the shooting include at least one Indian member approved by the community.

Jenine Grey, executive director of the club, opened the news conference with a demand for change at the police department. She said the shooting shows the department does not understand or protect the Indian people of this city, and that officer training to work with diverse peoples is "obviously grossly deficient."

"This tragedy should never have happened," Grey said. "We are worried about our most vulnerable community members who suffer regular harassment and abuse on the streets of Seattle."

It is incredible, she said, that in a city named for an Indian chief, a police officer would not recognize that an Indian carrying carving tools was no threat. Fliers were distributed at the news conference showing an elderly Indian woman weaving, and this message: "FYI: Practicing Indian Culture is Not A Crime."

In an interview, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, spokesman for the police department, asked for patience. "It is just so early. There is going to be so much more on this, we do ask that as difficult as it may be, that people have some patience and faith that the information will be presented in its due course.

"Here is what everyone can agree with: The outcome is not what anyone would have desired. It is a very tragic event, and it is being fully investigated in a manner that is consistent with long and well-established process, and ultimately the facts of the case will all be made public. No one wanted this."

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Speaking alongside an enlarged photograph of Williams, Cecile Hansen, chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe, said her key words for the mayor, city council and police chief are: "Are you listening, and can you hear me? The Indian community needs answers.

"When is all this shooting going to stop?" she said to applause. "I want to hear at some point down the road, 'It wasn't OK what happened.' As we all know, this should never have happened."

Chief Jack Thompson of the Ditidaht First Nation traveled from Vancouver Island to speak on Williams' behalf. "I find it appalling what happened to one of our members in this city. I hope the police would find it in their hearts to do the right thing. He had a hearing problem. He was doing nothing wrong, he was trying to make a living as he walked the streets of Seattle."

After the formal remarks, Alex Jackson, a Native who claimed to have survived abuse by police on the streets of Seattle in the past, drew the loudest applause when he declared, "This policeman should be charged with murder."

Others declared the matter is far from blown over. "We are not a people of a romantic past, nor are we a people of an irrelevant present and we are not going to allow this to be swept under the rug," said Randy Lewis, a leader of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation in Seattle.

"I knew John very well, he did not have a violent or aggressive bone in his body, nor could he move fast enough to be a threat to anybody. The only thing he could be a threat to is a piece of yellow cedar maybe."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published Sep. 3, 2010, was corrected Sep. 4, 2010. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a protest is planned for September 10. The date for the protest has not been set yet.

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