SPD officer says shooting 'escalated more quickly than I could have known'



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Posted on January 12, 2011 at 8:02 AM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 12 at 6:55 PM

SEATTLE - Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk returned to the witness stand Wednesday to explain why he shot and killed a native woodcarver last August.

Birk is testifying before an inquest jury. Anything he says can be used by prosecutors if they decide to charge him criminally, but the 27-year-old police officer is telling his story anyway.

All morning, Officer Birk was grilled by the attorney representing the family of John T. Williams, the man Birk confronted and then fatally shot after he saw the woodcarver walking on a busy street in downtown Seattle with a knife and a piece of wood. Birk said Williams appeared to be impaired and could have been a danger to the public.

Several times, Birk stood up and re-enacted the incident, holding the piece of wood Williams was carrying and a pen to represent the knife.

Before a packed courtroom, Birk was pressed to explain why the knife he considered threatening was found closed on the sidewalk next to Williams' body.

Officer Birk's actions and voice commands were caught on video from his patrol car as he approached Williams. There are only seven seconds between when he got out of his car to confront Williams and when he fired.

"His weight dropped, he lowered his center of gravity and if at that point he had taken a step in my direction, I don't think there is much I could have done to stop him," Birk said.

Birk said that Williams made eye contact, but purposefully ignored him as he called out to the woodcarver. The officer told the jury that Williams assumed an attacking posture instead of following commands to put down his knife.

Williams' brother and other family members shook their heads in disagreement as Birk testified.

Birk said he could see the blade of the open knife protruding from Williams' hand.

"At that time I was not left with any reasonable alternative but to fire at Mr. Williams, which I did. It was not immediately apparent to me whether or not my rounds were striking him or what effect they were having," Birk said.

The prosecutor who is tasked with questioning witnesses during the inquest asked "At the time you fired your weapon, did you believe Mr. Williams was about to attack you?"

Birk replied "Absolutely."

Prosecutor: "Were you afraid?"

Birk: "Yes."

Birk said he was following his training.

The first civilian witness to testify at the inquest told the jurors she didn't see anything from Williams that she perceived as threatening.

More civilian witness testimony is expected to continue Thursday.

The inquest jury will answer a series of questions that will help determine whether the shooting was justified. The jury's findings will be used by prosecutors in weighing whether Birk should be charged with a crime.