Probe of native woodcarver shooting deemed fair, but mistakes made by Seattle investigators

Feb 4, 2011

Another peer review of Seattle's handling of the John T. Williams shooting has found the police department conducted a fair and thorough investigation. 

The outside review by the police department of Austin, Texas was the second one commissioned by Seattle's Police Chief  in response to criticism of the controversial August shooting. The authors gave mostly good marks to Seattle police, concluding they were "professional, thorough and objective" and went to great lengths to "produce the most accurate and complete investigation possible." Highlights of the efforts taken include:

  • Unbiased interviewing at the crime scene; "investigators allowed each witness to tell their story in their own words without asking leading or prejudicial questions."
  • Scrutiny by investigators of contradictory statements from officers and witnesses; corroboration with facts and physical evidence. 
  • Extra lengths taken to procure forensic evidence; extensive research of Williams' knife by a private third-party lab.
  • Additional witnesses called for and interviewed in the days after the shooting.

A similar review was conducted by a San Diego Police Department homicide commander and released last week.  It also deemed Seattle's investigation unbiased and thorough.

But, along with the positive marks,  the report from Austin contains criticism of how detectives handled the crime scene.  The two faults noted:

  • Seattle police failed to take fingerprints and DNA from Williams Knife before it was analyzed and tested at a crime lab. 
  • Investigators should have examined the radio and ear buds found on Williams after he was shot.

As reporter Christine Clarridge notes in the Seattle Times, family members had originally said Williams was hard of hearing, and having the ear buds in could have further compromised his hearing.  But testimony at an inquest into the shooting indicated the radio was switched off.  The report from Austin suggests police failed to record this detail at the crime scene.

"This presence of this radio could create a question as to whether or not Williams heard Officer Birk's command to drop the knife. Prior to this review, the radio was not evaluated and its status at the time of the shooting was not ascertained," the review wrote.

A decision on whether to bring criminal charges against the officer who shot Williams, Ian Birk, is expected from the King County Prosecuting Attorney later this month.