Officer's shooting of woodcarver prompts shake-up in Seattle Police Department
Reverberations from a Seattle police officer's shooting of a First Nations totem carver in an Aug. 30 confrontation led to sweeping changes Wednesday in the Seattle Police Department that could be felt for years.
Seattle Times staff reporters
The sudden events that led Seattle police Officer Ian Birk to fatally shoot a First Nations man on Aug. 30 lasted only a few moments.
But reverberations from the confrontation prompted the Seattle Police Department on Wednesday to announce changes that could be felt for years.
At a news briefing punctuated by pointed questions from community activists, Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz laid out an ambitious plan to fundamentally alter the department's culture by requiring officers to deal more closely with the public and recognize differing backgrounds.
"Our goal is to do it right 100 percent of the time," pledged Diaz, who was named chief last month after serving as interim chief since last year.
Saying he was putting his "stamp on what I expect from the officers," Diaz announced a major shake-up in the duties of the department's captains as part of an effort to bolster officer training and community relations.
Acting Deputy Chief Nick Metz was promoted to a permanent position as one of two deputy chiefs and given the additional newly created duty of overseeing community relations.
Nine captains will take on new roles to carry out what Diaz described as the priorities of fighting crime, reducing fear and a heightened emphasis on building community relations.
Diaz also said the department was prepared to submit its complete investigation of the shooting of totem carver John T. Williams to two major police departments outside the region for peer review. He said the criteria are that the agencies be comparable to or larger in size than Seattle's department and be recognized on a national level for thorough major-crimes investigations.
"The scope of this review will be to examine every facet of the department's investigation and determine if there are any gaps, omissions, inconsistencies or investigative requirements that were unmet," Diaz said in a written statement.
The outside review would be completed before an inquest jury is impaneled to decide if Birk's use of lethal force was justified.
Praise for steps
Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess, the chair of the council's public-safety committee, who called last week for an outside review, praised the series of steps ordered by Diaz.
"What Chief Diaz did moves ... us in the right direction," Burgess said in a written statement. "We have a lot of work to do and we'll keep at it for the sake of our city and our officers."
Williams, 50, was shot on a sidewalk at the intersection of Boren Avenue and Howell Street after Birk apparently stopped him because he was carrying a stick and a small folding knife he used for carving.
Witnesses said Birk, 27, who has been an officer for two years, ordered Williams three times to drop the knife before he fired at least four rounds from a distance of about 9 feet, according to police accounts.
Police initially said the homeless man advanced on the officer, but they later retreated from that statement.
The shooting prompted witnesses and Williams' friends to question whether the well-known public inebriate posed any threat to the officer. Critics also have asked why Birk didn't wait for backup from other officers.
At Wednesday's briefing, Diaz said he couldn't comment on details of the shooting while the matter is under investigation.
But Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer, who will oversee a Firearms Review Board review of the shooting beginning Oct. 4, revealed that the department has interviewed 16 witnesses as part of an extensive investigation.
Training under review
The shooting followed two highly publicized cases in which a white male officer punched a black 17-year-old girl in a jaywalking incident and two officers stomped a prone Latino man, with one officer using ethnically inflammatory language.
The incidents led to calls for changes in the Police Department from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington and some Seattle City Council members, along with criticism over the shooting from Seattle's Native American community.
Kimerer acknowledged public concerns over the incidents, telling reporters, "I want to say plainly that our training program is on trial right now."
Diaz announced that the department will conduct a systematic review of its training techniques to be overseen by Capt. Steve Brown, who has been the commander of the downtown West Precinct. The review is to be completed by Jan. 1.
As part of the changes, more officers than the 300 who currently have them will be equipped with Tasers, and the department plans to launch a pilot program to equip 40 officers with personal video cameras that would record their actions, Diaz said. Birk did not have a Taser when Williams was shot.
The department also is expanding the number of officers trained in crisis intervention in order to help them deal with people suffering from mental illness and other problems.
Deputy Chief Metz said the department would look to ways to get officers out of their cars, including more foot and bike patrols. He said the department has been caught in a "response mode," in which officers respond to 911 calls, take reports and leave.
McGinn said the shooting and other recent incidents raise "very serious questions about preparation of our officers and concerns about racial profiling within the department."
He said the reorganization of the Police Department was not all about those incidents but incorporates the "concerns that arise from those incidents."
Burgess, in his statement, called the reorganization a "very good step," saying it "places a focus on building effective relationships in every neighborhood."
The chief's action fulfilled a promise during his confirmation that he would act to strengthen police and community ties, Burgess said.
Burgess also credited Diaz for seeking outside reviews of the shooting investigation.
"Agreeing to seek an outside and independent peer review of the investigation of the death of John Williams is an extremely strong affirmation of our detectives," Burgess added. "It will also build credibility in the community by allowing another set of qualified and experienced eyes to examine the evidence."
Wednesday's briefing was attended by several community activists, who peppered McGinn, Diaz and other police officials with questions about the department's practices.
At one point, McGinn was moderating a tense exchange between Kimerer, the deputy chief, and community activist Rod Parnelle, stepping forward to say, "Hey, one at a time, man."
Hours later, more than 200 people attended a City Council meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the shooting from a civil-rights perspective.
Representatives of Native Americans and other minority groups and people from human- and civil-rights organizations demanded more training for police in everything from de-escalation to sign language.
They demanded a civilian-review panel to look at the case and said they saw the shooting not as an isolated incident but as one in a long string of incidents where people were singled out by police because of how they looked.
Denise Stiffarm, the president of the Chief Seattle Club, said she was encouraged by the announcement the mayor and police chief made Wednesday about changes in the department.
"We appreciate the immediate action," she said, "but sustained and meaningful action will be the real statement to our community."
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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