I can understand why many people in Seattle are angry that Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk will not be charged with murder. If you or I intentionally shot and killed someone who was not an immediate threat to us, we would be charged with murder or at the very least manslaughter. But the law treats police officers differently. In 1986, Washington’s legislature passed a law that allows police officers to escape criminal charges for killing a person so long as the officer had a good faith belief that his actions were justified and he acted “without malice.” This law protects the officer even if his “good faith belief” was wrong. So, it is not surprising that King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg believed that he would not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Birk murdered John T. Williams.
On another front, the Firearms Review Board determined that this shooting was “unjustified and outside of policy, tactics and training.” Officer Birk violated SPD policies from the moment that he stepped out of his car without properly notifying his dispatch that he was approaching a man with a knife until he made the decision to pull his trigger. However, he won’t be fired, since he has resigned on February 16, 2011.
So can Ian Birk serve as a police officer at another department in Washington state? The answer to that question depends on Seattle Police Chief John Diaz. Peace officers in Washington are certified through the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. They can lose that certification if their employer asks the Commission to decertify the officer.
Officer Birk’s actions point to a bigger problem at the Seattle Police Department. A series of recorded incidents of Seattle police officers inflicting physical violence on city residents – most of whom are people of color – has demonstrated the need for significant change. This is why the ACLU-WA and 34 other organizations asked the Department of Justice to investigate the SPD for a pattern and practice of excessive use of force.
The ACLU and other community groups met with Department of Justice (DOJ) officials earlier this month, as part of their preliminary review of the request to investigate. It was a frank and productive meeting. They heard many examples of the kind of police incidents and attitudes that led so many groups to join the call for an outside party to examine the SPD and its culture. Our hope is that with the DOJ expertise and experience, it can help police leadership change ingrained habits of some members of its force.
A well-disciplined and accountable police department requires three essential qualities. Strong leadership that holds all employees to the highest standards of professional conduct and seeks to maintain a respectful environment within the department and throughout the city; independent, professional oversight to ensure that officers who violate the rules are held accountable and that the department’s policies are carefully crafted to protect the public and maintain the peace; and finally, high-quality and responsive training that prepares peace officers to protect our safety while enforcing the laws.
Whether or not DOJ decides to investigate the SPD, there are changes that can be made now to improve the training for all Washington state peace officers. The Criminal Justice Training Commission should make immediate improvements to the Basic Law Enforcement Academy to emphasize de-escalation, improved decision-making, and use of discretion by officers. The Academy training is the recruits’ first exposure to police work and it must be updated. As Chief Diaz has said, officers need to be carefully trained to know not just when they can use force but whether they should use force in a given situation. Only with careful training, oversight and leadership will our city find a way to curtail the “us versus them” mentality, so that all our police can fulfill their role of Peace Officers.