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Seattle police shake up ranks after fatal shooting

Officer killed woodcarver in downtown intersection

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and Chief John Diaz announced a major shake-up in the Seattle Police Department’s command ranks today in the wake of an officer’s fatal shooting of a First Nations totem carver.

New assignments for captains were unveiled in what was described as a top to bottom effort to bolster officer training and community relations.

Acting Deputy Chief Nick Metz was promoted to the permanent position, and given the additional duty of overseeing community relations.

“Our goal is to do it right 100 percent of the time,” Diaz said at a news briefing where he outlined an ambitious goal to fundamentally alter the culture of the department by requiring officers to deal more with the public and recognize differing backgrounds.

Diaz also said the department was prepared to submit its complete investigation of the Aug. 30 shooting of John T. Williams to two comparable police agencies outside the region for peer review. He said the criteria are that the agencies be comparable to or larger in size than the Seattle Police Department and 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 news release.

The peer review would be completed before an inquest court proceeding into the killing of Williams.

In announcing the changes, Diaz said in the statement that he had called together his top 50 commanders on Tuesday to unveil his goals and priorities for the department, including the new emphasis on community relations and training techniques.

Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer acknowledged that department training is “on trial right now,” as he pledged a systematic assessment of its practices.

Nine high-level commanders will be taking on new roles to carry out the priorities of fighting crime, reducing fear and building community relations, Diaz said in his statement.

More officers will be equipped with Tasers than the 300 who currently have them, and the department plans to launch a pilot program to equip 40 officers with personal video cameras that would record their actions, he said at the briefing.

The shooting of Williams has drawn criticism from Seattle’s Native-American community and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington.

McGinn and Diaz spoke at the news briefing a week after City Councilman Tim Burgess, chair of the council’s public-safety committee, called for an outside peer review of the shooting. Burgess said the shooting, coupled with other controversial police confrontations with citizens, required new steps to address public concerns.

The shooting has confronted Diaz with his greatest crisis since he was elevated from interim chief to permanent chief last month, coming on the heels of 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 using ethnically inflammatory language.

McGinn said he was concerned about the punching and stomping incidents and the shooting of Williams, but he noted the new moves in the department had to do with a more long-term effort to bring change.

He said reorganization is not all about those incidents, but that “it incorporates the concerns that arise from those incidents.”

Williams, 50, was shot by Officer Ian Birk at a busy intersection near downtown, prompting witnesses and Williams’ friends to question whether the well-known public inebriate, who was carrying a small knife and a piece of wood, posed any threat to the officer.

The ACLU released a sharply worded letter last week urging the department to change its attitude toward the use of force and reevaluate its training.

“Too often, officers have overreacted or escalated incidents when the subject is an individual of color, disabled, homeless or, otherwise ‘different,’ ” ACLU Executive Director Kathleen Taylor wrote in an open letter last Wednesday to Diaz, McGinn and the City Council.

“This mindset must change,” she wrote. “The pattern of violence must stop.”

Diaz reacted sharply to Taylor’s letter, saying last week he found her assertions “to be both inaccurate and objectionable.” He said he would discuss the issue privately with Taylor.

The thrust of the ACLU letter was embraced by Burgess and some other council members, who called for decisive leadership from McGinn and Diaz.

McGinn responded last week by saying the department is already addressing the issues and talking with affected communities.

“I take seriously any concerns raised in the community as to whether the police department behaves differently if somebody is a member of a minority group or homeless,” McGinn said. “We’re going to be working on how we can train and prepare our officers.”

Burgess, in calling for a review, said peer oversight of the “breadth, scope and adequacy” of the department’s investigation would provide transparency and should be shared with the King County Prosecutor’s Office before it oversees an expected public inquest into the shooting. Inquest jurors would decide if Birk acted properly in using lethal force.

Witnesses said Birk, 27, who had 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 nine feet, police said. The officer apparently stopped Williams because he was carrying a stick and a small folding knife he used to whittle his carvings.

Birk did not have a Taser.

Friends of Williams were outraged, saying he hardly posed a threat to the officer. Williams was a chronic alcoholic who friends say was hard of hearing and who suffered from a host of other health problems.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story. Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or