Did a Seattle police officer have to shoot a partially-deaf First Nations man?

John Williams

The Seattle police officer who shot and killed a partially-deaf First Nations woodcarver testified on Wednesday at an inquest hearing.

John T. Williams, 50, a member of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Dititdaht First Nation on Vancouver Island was gunned down by officer Ian Birk on August 30, 2010 in downtown Seattle.

At the time, Williams, who was known for carving small totem poles, was seen by Birk walking across an intersection, allegedly carrying an open folding three-inch blade knife.

The folding knife carried by Williams at the time of the fatal shooting.

After repeatedly ordering Williams to put down the knife, which Birk claims he was holding in a confrontational posture, he told the inquest that he had no choice but to fire his pistol 4 times, killing Williams.

But a lawyer representing the family of Williams says he was not facing officer Birk at the time of the shooting.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that the knife carried by Williams was closed when discovered by police after the shooting.

It is speculated the knife may have closed from dropping to the ground or Williams was in the process of closing his blade when he was shot.

Birk stands by his statement that Williams’ knife was indeed open and not in a closed position.

According to the Sky Valley Chronicle, whether the knife was open or closed could decide whether criminal charges will be laid against Birk.

In the days after the shooting, an uproar of criticism rippled through Indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada, with hundreds of people questioning whether lethal force was necessary.

At the time of his death, family members say Williams was beginning to turn his life around.  They say that because he was hard of hearing, slow moving, and often confused because of his struggle with alcoholism, Williams may not have heard or understood Birk’s order.

When the hearings wrap up, a jury will decide whether criminal charges will be brought against officer Birk.

[Images via seattleweekly.com and policemag.com]


In December, Seattle Police released a video of the moments leading up to the fatal shooting.  In it, you can hear Birk shouting at Williams and then the four shots:

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