Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Lethal Illusion Called "Authority"

Killer on the loose: Ian Birk, seconds before he gunned down John T. Williams.

"Why did you shoot that man? He didn't do anything!"

The question was wrenched from a woman who had watched in horror as Police Officer Ian Birk pumped four shots into the body of John T. Williams on a Seattle street corner last August 30.

Birk claimed that he had been "threatened" by Williams, a 50-year-old alcoholic woodcarver who was carrying two closed knives at the time of the incident. The autopsy, however, documented that Williams wasn't facing Birk when he was shot: The officer approached him from behind and to the right, and Williams was shot in the right side of his body from an estimated distance of about ten feet. A fifth shot that missed the target was never accounted for.

No reasonable person would have considered Williams a threat to Birk; in fact, since the victim was partially deaf, it's likely he never clearly heard Birk's demand that he drop his carving knife, and died before understanding what was going on. The entire lethal encounter lasted less than eight seconds.

There were several eyewitnesses to the homicide. None of them saw Williams display threatening behavior of any kind. Then again, none of them was a member of the State's punitive caste, which means that they hadn't been indoctrinated to perceive even a momentary lack of cooperation by a Mundane as a "pre-attack indicator." During the January inquest into the shooting, Birk explained that he gunned down John T. Williams on a Seattle street corner because he didn't like the way the 50-year-old chronic alcoholic looked at him.

Seconds to live: Williams, just before Birk shot him.
While prowling Seattle’s streets last August 30, Birk saw Williams in a crosswalk carrying a knife and a block of wood.  Birk reported that he was going to perform a "shake" -- an informal contact with a potentially suspicious person. He exited his police cruiser and, with his firearm in the "Sul" position, commanded Williams to drop his knife. No more than four seconds passed between Birk’s demand and the first of five gunshots fired by the officer. The entire encounter lasted roughly seven seconds.

Significantly, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, Birk specified that he had killed Williams for refusing to drop the knife, not because of threatening behavior of any kind. He also told another police officer that Williams "was carving up that board" -- which, if true, meant that Birk had seen the knife used as a tool, rather than a weapon.

In the dashcam video, Williams appears to be a small, middle-aged man with a shambling, tentative stride. While crossing the street the artisan does appear to be working with the wood in some fashion. Birk can be seen exiting the car and speaking casually into his portable radio before bellowing "Hey! Hey! Hey! Drop the knife!" Nothing in Birk's posture or tone of voice suggests that he was confronting a potential assailant, or in fear for his life.

Perhaps the most important fact, given Birk's claim that he was "threatened" by the confused, partially deaf woodcarver, is the fact that the officer was the one who was closing the distance in the seconds leading up to the shooting.

Williams had a troubled past characterized by alcoholism and occasional fits of improper public behavior. He was well known to the police as a “chronic inebriate.” In a video recording of an earlier encounter one officer is heard telling another that “I write him a ticket every time I can.”

In the days just prior to the August 30 shooting, Williams was stopped by police on several occasions. In one confrontation, Williams -- who at the time was so deep into his cups that he could barely stand upright -- can be heard making what was described as a “threat” to kill “all you police force.” This “threat” wasn’t taken seriously by the officers, who simply shrugged their shoulders and let Williams shuffle away.

John T. Williams with his handiwork.
 The Seattle police were familiar with Williams, his alcohol abuse, and the occasionally unsavory public behavior that resulted from it. Officers had also seen him carrying a carving knife and a block of wood on previous occasions. 

While he wasn’t always pleasant to be around, Williams wasn’t known to be disposed toward violence, and in any case wasn’t physically capable of any.  At the time Birk killed him, Williams was carrying two knives, both of which were legal under Seattle municipal ordinances (their blades were under 3.5 inches in length) and  were closed when photographed by crime scene investigators.

Officer William Collins, who arrived in response to Birk’s “shots fired” report, told him, seconds after the killing,  that he had done a "good job." All that Collins knew at the time was that a fellow member of his coercive brotherhood had just killed a Mundane -- and that's all he needed to know.

During the January shooting inquest, Seattle police brutality lawyer Tim Ford asked Collins if a closed knife constitutes a threat to "officer safety." A closed knife is "a major threat," Collins maintained, "just as big as an open knife.... It's extremely dangerous, and you have to treat the person with utmost caution.... [I]f you don't drop it, you may be shot" -- even if it is closed at the time. After all, Collins insisted -- regurgitating a familiar self-pitying police cliche --"We don't get paid enough to be hurt."

Detective Jeff Mudd, who also testified at the inquest, also asserted that Birk's decision was appropriate: "We're trained to shoot people who pose a threat to us."

In what sense was this puzzled, decrepit old alcoholic, "armed" with a small, closed knife, a "threat" to the young, vigorous, highly trained paladin of public order who confronted him with a drawn gun? The answer offered by Birk was that he was justified in shooting Williams because the woodcarver had given him a dirty look.

 "He had a very stern, very serious, very confrontational look on his face," Birk testified during the inquest. "He was still holding the knife up in front of himself ... in a confrontational posture." Birk's use of the word "still" means that Williams's "posture" hadn't changed from the time the officer supposedly saw him "carving up that board" -- which may have been unwise, but couldn't be construed as "confrontational."

A detailed account of the inquest published by The Stranger points out: "No witnesses reported seeing Williams act aggressively toward Birk or anyone else. No witnesses reported seeing a knife in Williams' hand."

Birk mentioned that he and other police are taught the "21-foot rule," which dictates that a knife-wielding subject should be considered a lethal threat within the prescribed distance. But it should be remembered that it was Birk who insisted on closing the distance. Birk also testified that "I motioned for him to come over and talk to me. He walked away."
If Birk, pursuant to the "21 foot rule," considered Williams to be a "threat," why did the officer instruct the woodcarver to come closer? When asked to elucidate that point, Birk stated that "if he would've complied with that command, it would've been a sign that he was compliant with what was going on."

Of course, if Williams had "complied" with that demand, it's entirely possible that he would have been gunned down anyway -- and that Birk would have claimed that the victim had "threatened him" by closing the distance between them.
Birk's testimony, which was clearly scripted for him, is a splendid example of what police call "creative writing" -- or what more honest people call perjury. He claimed that somehow, during the course of their very brief encounter, he saw Williams become "increasingly aggressive.... His brow was furrowed, eyes were fixed in a thousand-yard stare. His jaw was set."

Somehow, in a matter of nano-seconds, the forlorn and inoffensive American Indian woodcarver had -- at least in Birk's eyes -- assumed the fearsome demeanor of the ancient Irish warrior Cuchulain, whose "eyes were dark, his expression sullen."

In a fascinating piece of performance art, Birk recreated for the courtroom the sullen expression and "attack stance" that caused the valiant defender of the public weal to soil his skivvies.

The officer supposedly recognized and acted on these "pre-attack indicators" within the space of about four seconds. The situation "escalated more quickly than I had predicted," Birk insisted on the witness stand. So this was a "split-second decision," correct? Well -- perhaps for the police officer, but not for the victim, who according to Birk had all the time in the world to comply. "Mr. Williams had ample opportunity to do a number of things preventing this situation from becoming what it ultimately became," Birk declared on the stand.

Birk's lavishly detailed description of Williams' threatening behavior is difficult to reconcile with his own behavior in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Nowhere in the video recording of the incident can Birk be heard telling other officers or onlookers that Williams had threatened him with a knife. In his on-scene interview with the above-mentioned Detective Mudd, Birk said nothing about "pre-attack indicators." In his testimony at the inquest -- a pseudo-judicial procedure that is neither a criminal nor a civil trial -- Birk recited his lines like a well-rehearsed soap opera actor, displaying the composure of a sociopath in assigning all of the blame to the victim.

The jury at the inquest was not convinced that Birk had told the truth about the supposed threat posed by Williams. On February 15, Seattle PD's Firearms Review Board ruled that the fatal shooting was "unjustified," and recommended that "Officer Birk must remain stripped of all Seattle Police powers and authority, as he was on October 5th, 2010 when he surrendered his gun and badge."

Birk had clearly committed an act of criminal homicide, and his only "punishment" was to be "stripped" of something nobody really possesses -- the supposed power and authority to engage in discretionary killing.

As we’ve seen on numerous occasions, contemporary law enforcement officers are on a war footing, which means that their default setting is “overkill.” (Birk, like so many other police officers, is a military veteran, having served as a paralegal in the National Guard.) It likewise means that they are functionally immune from prosecution when they commit acts of criminal homicide.

Shortly after the decision of the Firearms Review Board was made public, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced that although the murder of Williams was “troubling,” no criminal charges would be filed against the murderer. This is  because it Satterberg believes it would be impossible to demonstrate that the unjustified killing was the product of malice.

“A jury would be compelled to find Officer Birk not guilty,” Satterberg claimed. This should be taken as an oblique admission by Satterberg that he would have thrown the case if it had gone to trial. The state’s homicide statute recognizes that it is not necessary to demonstrate malice in cases where death results from criminal neglect.

Furthermore, the relevant section Washington’s criminal code describes an offense called “homicide by abuse” in which one person, in “circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human life,” causes the death of ” a developmentally disabled person”; although this statute was written to apply to cases in which mentally handicapped or otherwise dependent people die from prolonged mistreatment, a properly motivated prosecutor could find a way to convince a jury that the statute should cover an incident in which a police officer summarily executes a deaf, mentally challenged woodcarver.
As is generally the case when a member of the Krypteia slaughters a helot, the only ones punished are the local tax victims: The City of Seattle has announced a $1.5 million settlement with the victim’s family.

Birk himself will probably join the ever-growing ranks of "Gypsy Cops" and turn up somewhere else swaddled in a government-provided costume and invested with the spurious authority to kill.

Police authority" is a strange, mystical property that leaves a heavy residue of privilege even in those, like Ian Birk, from whom it is withdrawn.

Consider what would happen if the situation had been reversed on that Seattle street corner last August 30: What if Birk had been ordered to divest himself of his weapon by a member of the productive class? What if Birk had been the one gunned down four seconds after that demand had been made by someone who later claimed that he felt "threatened" by Birk's facial expression?

Were a sanctified personage in a police uniform to be killed in that fashion by a Mundane who displayed no malice, D.A. Satterberg would probably find the motivation, and summon the necessary creativity, to build a criminal case.
In a recent case of that kind in Eugene, Oregon, a woman reportedly suffering from schizophrenia allegedly gunned down Officer Chris Kulcullin, who -- his chosen profession aside-- appears to have been a genuinely decent man, with a wife and two children. While the specifics of that horrible episode differ from the killing of John T. Williams, both of those incidents were random acts of unjustified lethal violence. Ian Birk faces no criminal charges. Cheryl Kidd, who allegedly murdered Kulcullin, has been charged with aggravated murder, and could face the death penalty.

The only thing separating those two acts of criminal homicide is "authority" -- that quantity, at once elusive and illusive, that supposedly elevates the State's hired enforcers above the hoi polloi, permitting them to inflict summary punishment on any Mundane who displays so much as a flicker of defiance. It is this ineffable gift that allows Ian Birk and his ilk to gun down, without serious consequence, any Mundane who dares give them a dirty look. 

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Dum spiro, pugno!


Anonymous said...

Every "hesitation" on the part of someone faced by a member of the fat blue line is thus defined by the survivor, the COP, as confrontational? Of course, like history, it's the victors who write the tales.

Anonymous said...

I treat every contact with cops as potentially deadly. I’m armed and I train regularly, and I consider them my enemy in every sense. While I seek no confrontation with them, I’m not going to roll over for them either. Modern day LEO is the cutting edge of tyranny’s knife, and there must come a point wherein that edge needs “blunting”.

When loading your carry weapon, do so with gloves to keep your prints off the ammo. It may be that you survive the encounter and have an opportunity to scat. No sense wasting valuable time gathering up shell cases!

Anonymous said...


Your observations are correct, and I would add to that:

You mention that the officer was at position "sal" which, I believe is to say that the officer had his handgun in his hand and draped across his body for a faster response.

If this is indeed the case, it is worthy to note that the mentioned "21 foot rule" (Tueller Drill, see was designed to primarily teach the response time for a holstered firearm.

Not only was he tactically wrong for closing the distance, he was wrong for quoting a 21 foot rule for having the gun in his hands.

idahobob said...

Oh yes, if you are wearing the uniform and sporting the badge, you have license to kill, without provocation.

IMHO, we, the people, ought to be shooting back, and protecting each other from these armed thugs.


Mo said...

While I'm not trying to defend this shoot, I don't believe it is typical of Policemen. I know a number of them and they are good folks and neighbors. I also work as an RSO at our club's range when local departments qualify. I've learned that Cops, in general, are NOT gun people. Maybe one in five is what I would consider proficient (and familiar) with their firearms (Pistols, Shotguns and ARs) My advice to anyone who is dealing with law enforcement with drawn guns is to comply completely and quickly as you are in grave danger no matter how innocent or 'right' you are. All of the negligent discharges I'm aware of on our range have been by cops. Luckily, no injuries (so far). Scary.

Cops are just regular folks that want to make it home after work. Unfortunately they see the very worst of humanity on a daily basis and I suspect it jades them to some degree. It's a tough job and the good ones really earn their pay and do a tremendous service for all of us. Rather than lump them into the same category as the officer in this story I give them the benefit of the doubt.

William N. Grigg said...

Mo -- thanks for the following valuable contribution to the discussion:

I've learned that Cops, in general, are NOT gun people. Maybe one in five is what I would consider proficient (and familiar) with their firearms (Pistols, Shotguns and ARs) My advice to anyone who is dealing with law enforcement with drawn guns is to comply completely and quickly as you are in grave danger no matter how innocent or 'right' you are. All of the negligent discharges I'm aware of on our range have been by cops.

This is one reason, among many others, why it is much more dangerous to be a "civilian" than to be a police officer. "Law enforcement" is simply not that dangerous a profession: You would face much greater dangers as a commercial fisherman, farmer, logger, or trucker than as a police officer.

Yet police are constantly indoctrinated in the belief that they live in a 360-degree battlefield, that everyone not accoutered as they are should be considered a potentially lethal threat, and that even a momentary refusal to submit on the part of a "civilian" should be seen as a "threat indicator."

When culpable incompetence in handling firearms is added to that mix -- which, as you noted, it frequently is -- it becomes clear that government police forces actually represent a net subtraction from public safety.

GunRights4US said...

For eight years I employed cops as cash security at an NFL stadium. I KNOW cops better than the average person. And here's my take on the species:

Keith Hamburger said...

Mo, as far as I can tell virtually every police officer is a felon. If not by acts of comission, by acts of omission.

Even if just a small percentage of police officers plant evidence, abuse a suspect or perjure themselves on a witness stand to obtain a conviction (that latter is probably greater than 50%), they have all heard credible reports of another officer doing so. If they fail to investigate or treat one of their "brethren" any differently than they would someone not wearing a government issued costume they are accomplices and accessories to the crime and every bit as guilty as the actual perpetrator.

And, note, I refuse to hide behind a pseudonym or otherwise.

Chris Mallory said...

Cops do see the worst of humanity every day, in the locker room of the station house. There are no good cops, no not one. Every one of them is dirty.

MacFall said...

Mo, you're right. This is not behavior typical of policemen. More typically, policemen engage in lower-level, non-fatal forms of violence. But the problem isn't policemen; it is the INSTITUTION called "the police." The institution permits murder under the color of law. Therefore the institution is corrupt.

All it takes is ONE case demonstrating that an institution protects criminal behavior to demonstrate that the institution has to go; that it must be replaced with something different. But because The Police have a territorial, compulsory monopoly, there is no getting rid of them. What The Police presents to society is a place where bullies and sociopaths can go to become legally-protected bullies and sociopaths, provided they are willing to keep their bullying and sociopathy within certain limits.

It doesn't matter how many genuinely decent and good people join The Police in order to catch genuinely dangerous and evil people. The fact is that the insitution will always attract the very sort of people who, absent badges and uniforms, they would be out to get! You can't talk about a few bad apples in the barrel when they barrel itself has a corrupting influence on its contents.

Aaron C. de Bruyn said...

Wow--you're allowed to murder someone due to 'pre-attack indicators'?

Can we start arresting police officers for 'pre-rape indicators'? They have the *capability* (male parts) and I'm sure I've seen a few of them leer at women which is a 'pre-rape indicator' in my book...

It's absolutely absurd.

Eileen said...

Stories like this are so frequent, why not produce a TV show with a different psycho cop incident featured every week? I'm serious! This would reach a much wider audience and would get people riled up enough to do something about all these losers out there in police costume. If it's entertaining (and it would be), lots of people are going to watch, and perhaps this would put a stop to a lot of the attitudes of awe which so many sheeple exhibit toward these ruthless, dangerous, insecure bullies. Not sure what it would take, but there's a hit show there for sure! Thanks for this site, Mr. Grigg - you're doing a real public service!

Isaac said...

Unfortunately, Eileen, this TV show wouldn't reach a very wide audience due to interference from the major networks, which are merely a cog in the overall machine that attempts to guide our lives. Anything other than grateful fawning over our troops (home and abroad!) is forbidden.

Producing this sort of show independently is possible with outlets like youtube, but might require the acquisition of footage from patrol car cameras, which I suppose would be difficult given the slant of the show.

An undertaking of that sort is more possible now than ever before, given the access to information, footage, and affordable editing equipment.

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, a rogue murdering cop like this would have been prosecuted and hanged, run out of town, or shot. What the hell has happened to us as a people that we sit back and allow our police forces to become roving bands of pillaging, murdering thugs? We have truly become a nation of sheep who have lost the ability and the will for self determination. When do we, as a society, wake up and realize that a violent criminal is still a violent criminal even if he wears a uniform and a badge? When will police departments start to weed out the bad apples among them? Cops constantly whine about the dangers of their job and the lack of respect shown to them by the people in their communities. It seems to me they are not intelligent enough to see this is a problem of their own creation.


Kitty Antonik Wakfer said...

With Ian Birk's photo clearly visible with this article it is possible for all those who are repulsed by his killing of John T Williams and come into contact with him to treat him with the clear disdain that he deserves. Do not voluntarily interact with him at all - no services, no products, no anything by which he would benefit!

Negatively social preference Birk right out of whatever area he is currently living in - and then do it again wherever he flees. While the government in the locale of Willaims' murder has chosen not to prosecute Birk, those who are disgusted by his actions can shame and shun him as well as all other enforcers once they know their names, general location and have a recent photograph for identification. Keeping those photos and general location current would be a benefit providing service, worthy of financial support by those who are themselves responsible and seek such behavior in others.

Holding others responsible for their actions and being responsible for one's own actions are necessities in an orderly society. Much of that has gone by the wayside in the current one even for those who are well known and for whom actions can be directly related to their direction/order - the current and previous President are prime examples. I have written in general on this subject, one is "Tax/Regulation Protests are Not Enough: Relationship of Self-Responsibility and Social Order" -