Thursday, November 18, 2010

An unbelievable story badly told doesn't help police credibility

There was some local story about Des Moines (WA) residents being “outraged” by the killing of a dog named “Rosie” by a local police officer. Of course, one would naturally be inclined to ask what does it take for the same neighborhood to be “outraged” by the killing of a human by the same officer. Being unarmed seldom is sufficient for this purpose; merely acting erratically due to mental illness or alcohol is not going to win your dead body any sympathy points from an inquest jury, either. In the end, it is always rationalized away as a fact of life (everybody dies) or the victim must be a bad guy anyways. But on occasion certain elements conspire to undo the rogue officer and force the public to look facts straight in the eye.

Take the case of the shooting death of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams. From the very beginning of its reportage, something seemed quite fishy, but one suspected that if Officer Ian Birk’s story had even a grain of truth to it, he was going to get away with it. It was initially reported that Birk saw Williams perched on a wall with an open knife, and when Birk approached him, Williams jumped off the wall and advanced toward him in menacing manner, knife threatening. Birk had no choice but to pump four bullets in him. If that story was even 25 percent correct, this would have been forgotten the next day. The problem was that this story was so far removed from the truth, given the testimony of numerous witnesses, that Birk had to huddle with police union personnel to concoct a new story. The problem with the new story, of course, was that it was just as incredible as the first, as revealed by a recent story in the Seattle Times.

To wit: Birk fired five gunshots at Williams four seconds after issuing his first command to drop his carving knife. Birk was confronted by a witness asking him why he shot him. “He had a knife, but he wouldn’t drop it.” That’s it? Oh, but Williams also had a small piece of wood; so Birk felt doubly threatened, not being able to put two and two together like any normal person? But wait: Did not Birk initially make no statement to officers who arrived at the scene shortly thereafter that indicated that he had been threatened or assaulted? Did he not tell those officers that “He had it out; he was carving up that board with it open. I approached him… and instructed him to drop it multiple times, and he wouldn’t do it.” Now, witnesses say that four seconds had elapsed between the first command and the gunfire; four seconds generally isn’t enough time for anyone to “respond,” even when sober. This description of the encounter (it is not clear if this was before or after Williams was seen perched on that fictional wall) was immediately seen as bad business by the police union reps, whose interest was less in truth but in whitewashing the facts as best they could, even if it meant resorting to blatant fabrication. This time it was no late night encounter in a lonely alley with no witnesses, where invention is presumed to be fact merely on the word of a police officer.

The new version claimed that it was a 10 second encounter—and became an “extended, threatening confrontation” that forced Birk to shoot as a last resort. Birk claimed that Williams was facing him, holding the knife up in a “very confrontational posture.” Now, you might ask “Don’t police ever stop lying?” but why get in the way of a fascinating yarn even if badly told. Birk then made the observation that Williams—who according to witnesses never faced Birk—had his “jaw set and his expression stern,” and continued to look at him with a “serious expression.” Can you believe this? This is enough to set his guns a’blazing? Only for a police officer. Then—all this in the space of ten seconds (actually four) Williams became more “aggressive” as if he was “preparing to fight.” Birk—get this—claimed that Williams turned to face him “slowly and deliberately,” which led him to believe that “he was either seriously detached or knew I was trying to stop him and attempting to avoid contact with the police.” Forget the ludicrousness and improbability of this tale—Birk made these “determinations” all within the 10 seconds he said he had made his first command (actually four). Williams showed “pre-attack indicators,” and Birk was “struck with an immediate fear for my own life.” So the officer armed with a Glock 40 felt more threatened than the intoxicated man who was just minding his own business with a by now closed and legal three-inch knife, that even the officer knew was being used to cut a small piece of wood and not a person. So he had to fire his gun five times, four of the bullets lodging in Williams side. Birk claimed that the drunken Williams—who was not in fact facing him—could attack him “at any moment.”

Forensic evidence and witnesses at the scene flatly contradicted this version of events, and the disgust one feels for the very blatancy of the lies and deceptions are just the kind of thing that police should be thinking about before they concoct such absurd and unbelievable stories. The front page of the Seattle Times displayed still pictures from the police camera in Birk’s patrol car; Williams is seen passing by clearly immersed in the carving of his piece of wood, completely unaware of or unperturbed by the officer’s presence; he was clearly threatening no one. The police are doing themselves no favors with such inventions when everyone can see the facts point elsewhere. People are not as stupid as they think. Birk’s attorney, Ted Buck, states that we don’t know the “whole story,” but what could the rest of the story be but that police psychological examinations had failed to reveal Birk’s paranoid, bullying streak and complete lack of judgment?

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