Seattle to pay $1.5M to family of slain woodcarver

By Gene Johnson
Seattle, Washington (AP) May 2011

The city of Seattle said it is paying $1.5 million to the family of a homeless woodcarver who was shot by a police officer last summer, a killing that helped prompt a top-to-bottom federal review of the city’s police department.

Officer Ian Birk shot John T. Williams last August after the Native American woodcarver crossed the street in front of Birk’s patrol car while holding a piece of wood and a small knife. Birk later maintained Williams had threatened him, but the department’s firearms review board ruled the shooting unjustified, and Birk resigned. The knife was found folded at the scene.

According to the settlement announced recently, the city will pay $250,000 in trust to Williams’ mother and place $1.25 million in escrow for his estate. A judge will oversee distribution of the money from the estate, and a special representative will be appointed to determine whether Williams had any children who might be entitled to the money. No children have been located thus far.

“This is one step towards justice, but it is only a step,” Williams’ brother, Rick, said in a news release issued jointly with the city. “Nothing can make up for the loss of my brother.”

Along with other incidents of force used against minorities, Williams’ killing prompted the Justice Department to announce last month that it would launch a formal civil rights investigation of the police department, to determine whether Seattle police have a “pattern or practice” of violating civil rights or discriminatory policing, and if so, what they should do to improve.

Separately, the DOJ is reviewing whether Birk should be charged criminally with deliberately violating Williams’ civil rights while acting under “color of law” as a police officer. Birk’s attorney has called that a waste of time, saying Birk feared for his life and was following his training when he shot.

The settlement was reached through mediation between the city and Williams’ family. The city attorney’s office said that saved both sides from protracted litigation and expensive legal fees.