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Fatal Police Shooting Creates Shake-Up at Seattle Department

Fatal Police Shooting Creates Shake-Up at Seattle Department

Seattle Police Deputy Chief Nick Metz was given the newly created duty of overseeing community relations. At left is Mayor Mike McGinn, at right is Police Chief John Diaz.

The Seattle Times via YellowBrix

September 16, 2010

SEATTLE – The sudden events that led Seattle police Officer Ian Birk to fatally shoot a First Nations man on Aug. 30 lasted only a few moments.

But reverberations from the confrontation prompted the Seattle Police Department on Wednesday to announce changes that could be felt for years.

At a news briefing punctuated by pointed questions from community activists, Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz laid out an ambitious plan to fundamentally alter the department’s culture by requiring officers to deal more closely with the public and recognize differing backgrounds.

“Our goal is to do it right 100 percent of the time,” pledged Diaz, who was named chief last month after serving as interim chief since last year.

Saying he was putting his “stamp on what I expect from the officers,” Diaz announced a major shake-up in the duties of the department’s captains as part of an effort to bolster officer training and community relations.

Acting Deputy Chief Nick Metz was promoted to a permanent position as one of two deputy chiefs and given the additional newly created duty of overseeing community relations.

Nine captains will take on new roles to carry out what Diaz described as the priorities of fighting crime, reducing fear and a heightened emphasis on building community relations.

Diaz also said the department was prepared to submit its complete investigation of the shooting of totem carver John T. Williams to two major police departments outside the region for peer review. He said the criteria are that the agencies be comparable to or larger in size than Seattle’s department and be recognized on a national level for thorough major-crimes investigations.

“The scope of this review will be to examine every facet of the department’s investigation and determine if there are any gaps, omissions, inconsistencies or investigative requirements that were unmet,” Diaz said in a written statement.

The outside review would be completed before an inquest jury is impaneled to decide if Birk’s use of lethal force was justified.

Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess, the chair of the council’s public-safety committee, who called last week for an outside review, praised the series of steps ordered by Diaz.

“What Chief Diaz did moves … us in the right direction,” Burgess said in a written statement. “We have a lot of work to do and we’ll keep at it for the sake of our city and our officers.”

Williams, 50, was shot on a sidewalk at the intersection of Boren Avenue and Howell Street after Birk apparently stopped him because he was carrying a stick and a small folding knife he used for carving.

Witnesses said Birk, 27, who has been an officer for two years, ordered Williams three times to drop the knife before he fired at least four rounds from a distance of about 9 feet, according to police accounts.

Police initially said the homeless man advanced on the officer, but they later retreated from that statement.

The shooting prompted witnesses and Williams’ friends to question whether the well-known public inebriate posed any threat to the officer. Critics also have asked why Birk didn’t wait for backup from other officers.

At Wednesday’s briefing, Diaz said he couldn’t comment on details of the shooting while the matter is under investigation.

But Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer, who will oversee a Firearms Review Board review of the shooting beginning Oct. 4, revealed that the department has interviewed 16 witnesses as part of an extensive investigation.

The shooting followed two highly publicized cases in which a white male officer punched a black 17-year-old girl in a jaywalking incident and two officers stomped a prone Latino man, with one officer using ethnically inflammatory language.

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