Crowds of protestors filled the streets in Seattle last week after prosecutors chose not to charge Seattle police officer Ian Birk for the alleged shooting of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams.
While watching the video of the shooting you count less than five seconds that it took for Birk to shoot his gun at Williams, who was allegedly holding a knife. The questions mounted as to why Birk chose to fire at Williams, but the video doesn’t seem to show any type of malice on Birk’s part.
Malice is defined as the intention to commit an unlawful and unjustifiable act that will result in harm to another. This seems to be the key in the prosecutor’s decision not to charge Birk. It also brings up the question of a 25-year-old state law regulating police from using deadly force and helping to determine whether the deadly force by an officer is justifiable homicide.
The law was intended to not only protect police officers but also to protect minority inmates when the law was passed in 1986. It seems, however, that it may be time to take another look at this law.
Three of the four pieces of this law seem obvious and reasonable. They include the officer reasonably believing that the suspect is attempting to commit a felony; the officer having probable cause to believe his life is in danger, or that others’ lives are in danger; and that the force is “necessary.”
We must give our police officers these tools to perform their jobs. If they are in constant fear of being fired or even prosecuted, they can’t do their job correctly. We must also remember that these officers are highly trained to protect those they serve. For most officers, shooting someone is not a decision which they take lightly.
As for the fourth part of the law, it states that an officer can use deadly force if it is justified and without malice. It’s this part of the law that needs to be looked at more closely.
In the case of officer Birk, the video doesn’t seem to show any malice whatsoever. He’s not screaming profanities or calling Williams names. He simply walks towards him and begins shooting after only a few seconds, after seeing the knife.
Police officers who do their jobs well and without problems are definitely the majority. Unfortunately, it’s the rare cases of bad policing that seem to jump to the front cover of newspapers and lead stories on evening newscasts.
Until the law is revisited, I am glad I don’t have to be the one making the tough decisions like whether or not Birk was acting with malice.