Death, lies, and videotape

The film of a cop shooting David Walker changes the debate over police officers' use of deadly force.

IN THE VIDEO, moments before he is killed, David Walker is skipping happily. In his wig-wagging right hand is a knife pointed at himself. Tailed for two blocks by police officers who say they were twice unable to stop him with pepper spray, the neatly dressed black man appears amused but wary of the half-dozen white-uniformed cops leveling pistols and a shotgun at him. The cops calmly ask, "Why don't you just stop and talk to us at this point?" or loudly command, "Stop right there, stop!" They do not know of his past mental problems and that he did prison time for assaults. They do know that minutes earlier on Lower Queen Anne a man of Walker's description supposedly shoplifted at a Safeway store and allegedly fired two shots at a security guard outside the supermarket. He then casually sauntered up the street. He resumes a steady gait along an otherwise deserted Taylor Avenue North, glancing about at his encircling pursuers and two TV cameras. Looming ahead is heavily trafficked Denny Way and behind it the Monorail, increasing the public risk posed by both the armed man and armed officers.

Police say at this point Walker lunged outward with his knife threateningly and was shot dead. Officers—presumably aware they were being photographed—were possibly intent on wounding or killing the knife-wielder as he approached Denny Way. Veteran officer Tommie Doran apparently felt threatened enough last Wednesday afternoon that he fired a bullet into Walker's chest.

But the extraordinary news video by KING TV arguably does not show a threatening lunge. Walker pauses, turns, and raises his left hand. The arm motion may have triggered the shooting, but there was no lunge discernible on the videotape. The knife remained in the unraised hand.

Community leaders are asking for appointment of a citizen panel to independently review the death, the third fatal SPD shooting in 10 months. For certain, the killing of David Walker, 40, will be reviewed by a police board, a county inquest jury, and the King County prosecutor. But many have little faith in these processes. Police shooting boards regularly back their officers; similarly, a coroner's jury has never found a police killing unjustified in 20 years. And Prosecutor Norm Maleng has never charged an officer for any of those deaths. Critics say race is a factor: In the past five years, six of seven who died were minorities (see "License to kill," SW, 11/4/99). Of 33 people who have been shot or choked to death at Seattle police hands since 1980, 18 were white and 15 were minorities.

But this case is different. For the first time in anyone's memory, there is an unblinking record of one of these deaths: the videotape of David Walker.

It is perhaps the most important footage of its kind, a police killing from beginning to end. Was it justified? Was it murder? Were there alternatives? Reviewers, including inquest jurors, will not have to rely solely on witnesses, evidence, or interpretations of others. Thanks to pictures worth a thousand contentious words, reviewers and the community can judge for themselves whether or not police officers "have a license to kill," as David Walker's niece Adrian asked last week. Many have asked the same question before her: The answer this time may not be out of reach.

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