The knife that John T. Williams was carrying when he was fatally shot by a Seattle police officer on Aug. 30 was folded in a closed position when it was recovered minutes after the shooting, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
The knife’s condition, along with other factors, played a role in a preliminary determination by the Police Department’s Firearms Review Board and Chief John Diaz that the shooting was not justified, said one law-enforcement source.
The three-inch blade was found closed when another officer picked up the knife at scene, which was documented in evidentiary photographs taken at the scene, the sources said.
Tests were to be conducted to determine whether it’s possible that the knife may have closed when it hit the ground, sources said.
Ian Birk, the officer who shot Williams, told the board the blade was visible when he confronted Williams and ordered him three times to drop the knife, according to one source.
Birk’s attorney, Ted Buck, said today that he couldn’t comment on specific evidence because of rules governing a court inquest that is to be held into the shooting.
But Buck said, “We expect the evidence that will come forth at the inquest will provide a full explanation for the knife’s condition at the time it was recovered.”
Buck said the knife has been “thoroughly analyzed,” providing an explanation as to its condition and “the way the knife was collected into evidence.”
Buck said the evidence will also show there was an “imminent risk associated with Mr. Williams.”
Knife a focus of inquest
Birk fatally shot Williams, 50, in the late afternoon of Aug. 30 at the intersection of Boren Avenue and Howell Street, near downtown. Critics have questioned whether Birk acted too hastily in shooting Williams, a woodcarver and chronic street inebriate.
A day after the shooting, Seattle police released a photograph of the knife during a news conference, showing it in the open position.
No description was given at that time about whether it was open when it was recovered, and police officials have since declined to discuss evidence because of the pending inquest. Department officials declined to comment today on the knife.
It’s unclear whether the knife had a mechanism that locked the blade in place once it was open.
Whether the knife was open while Williams was carrying it is expected to be a major issue at the inquest, in which jurors will hear testimony and determine if Birk acted properly. The jury’s findings can help guide the King County Prosecutor’s Office in determining whether criminal charges are warranted.
Diaz and the board will make a final determination on the justification for the shooting after the inquest is held. It is rare for the department to find a shooting is unjustified.
After the Firearms Review Board reached its preliminary findings in early October, Birk was ordered to surrender his gun and badge, according to sources. Birk, 27, who joined the department in July 2008, remains on routine paid leave.
Birk shot Williams after he stopped his patrol car at a red light and saw Williams carrying a piece of wood and a small knife that turned out to be used for carving.
Williams, who was a member of Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations in British Columbia, did not respond to three commands to drop the knife, according to police officials and an audio recording retrieved from Birk’s patrol car. Williams’ family has said he probably didn’t hear the officer command him to drop the knife because he was deaf in one ear.
The department originally said Williams advanced on Birk but later retreated on that statement.
According to two people familiar with the shooting, who asked not to be identified, there was a time span of less than 15 seconds between the time Birk issued his commands and when he fired his gun. Seattle police have previously said that Birk fired four rounds from a distance of nine to 10 feet.
Williams was struck by four bullets on the right side of his body, indicating Williams was not facing the officer at the time the shots were fired, according to an attorney for Williams’ family.
Williams collapsed on the sidewalk along Howell Street, where he was pronounced dead.
The shooting led to public protests and scrutiny, including questions on why Birk didn’t call for backup, or use his patrol car as cover rather than confront Williams in the open, and why he wasn’t equipped with a Taser. It also prompted the Police Department to make major changes aimed at bolstering training and improving community relations. The department also said it would equip more officers with Tasers.