You don’t bring a knife – or a squirt gun or a TV channel changer - to a gun fight, as too many victims of police bullets demonstrate. You don’t bring a piece of metal either, as big Jack Sun Keewatinawin did last February in Greenwood. When he raised the small piece of rebar in the air, Seattle Police mowed down the 350-pound schizophrenic with a fiery fusillade. Though the victim’s father had begged police not to shoot his son, a King County inquest jury last month found the killing justified. Jurors were swayed by testimony and inquest rules historically favorable to police: The forum’s limited questioning and cop-heavy presentation is why some form of justifiable homicide has been the outcome of almost every King County District Court inquest – more than 200 deaths countywide - in the past 65 years of record keeping.
One of the few exceptions came this decade. That’s when a January 2011 jury divided 4 to 4 over the key question of whether hard-of-hearing Indian carver John T. Williams, whittling wood with his knife, posed an imminent risk to Seattle officer Ian Birk before the cop gunned him down with four shots in 2010. Findings are almost always unanimous, so that was a startling departure for an inquest jury, half of which also felt Birk fired before the innocent Williams had a chance to put down his carver’s knife.
But as homicides-by-cops go, charging Birk would have been a waste of time anyway, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said. Under state law, which gives leeway to police who make split-second shooting decisions, Satterberg said he’d have to prove Birk acted out of malice, rather than deadly incompetence. The feds also took a look at the case for civil rights violations, but said they, too, couldn’t prove Birk acted willfully. He resigned from the department without legal consequence, and city taxpayers paid Williams’ family a $1.5 million settlement.
It was a case the SPD was glad to see go away: Birk was apparently ready to defend himself against any charges by claiming the department taught him to do what he did. As Williams family attorney Tim Ford put it, “Basically, he would have been able to claim that he was trained to fear for his life when no real threat existed.” That training, or lack of, is one of the reasons SPD is under federal oversight today for having engaged in an unconstitutional pattern and practice of excessive force.
The flip side is proper force, such as that used by SPD officer Tony Ducre in January to kill James D. Anderson, 32, at the Twilight club in the Central District. Kicked out for a disturbance, Anderson returned with a gun and had already wounded his girlfriend and a bouncer before Ducre, after a shot from Anderson zipped past him, returned fire, likely saving lives that night. A review of inquest records shows jurors in June unanimously agree Ducre’s actions were justified.
An April inquest found police were justified in the use of force against Michael Kwan Yu Chen, 30, after he was found destroying a West Seattle apartment with his sword last September. He was Tasered several times and then handcuffed, when he died. Cause of death was “excited delirium” and acute methamphetamine intoxication, according to records. An inquest jury in March also found in favor of Tukwila Police, in whose custody a mentally ill man, Victor Duffy Jr., 25, died after being Tasered and pepper sprayed. His family’s $15 million lawsuit, filed last year, was dismissed in June.
The Keewatinawin case was more challenging than most. But in August, it brought another unanimous verdict. On February 26, police responded to a call that the suspect was holding his father hostage with a knife at a home on Fourth Avenue Northwest. Officers testified they Tasered Keewatinawin but that failed to stop him. After he brandished a piece of rebar and moved toward one of the officers who reportedly had slipped and fallen to the ground, Keewatinawin, who was off his meds for schizophrenia, was killed while holding the rebar in a threatening manner, police testified.
The victim’s father, Henry Northwind, had recalled to reporters after the incident that he yelled at police “Please, please don’t kill my son.” He claimed Keewatinawin was not a threat to the officers chasing him. “They killed him like a rabid dog,” he said.
However, Northwind (also spelled North Wind) didn’t testify at the inquest. He died at age 69 in June, according to county records. Also missing was evidence that can make all the difference in such cases, video proof. Despite ten police units responding to the scene, none captured the shooting on their digital cameras. According to an inquest story on the Facebook page of the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, a Seattle police detective testified last month that officers turned off their cameras “when they met up in the QFC store parking lot before going to Jack’s house.”
Veteran Homicide Det. Cloyd Steiger tells us that’s “close, but not quite right” as to what he said under oath. “The original call happened when most of the officers were still in the precinct for roll call.,” he says. “Some 2nd Watch units, who were already logged on, also responded. Many of the officers just coming on were able to log on to their computers and cameras while en route, but others were not.
“Because of the seriousness of the call, no cars responded directly to the scene, but staged behind the QFC, and walked to the scene. Their cameras recorded their response there, and also recorded the cars being parked there. Those just showed a blank wall for the duration of the time they were parked there. They weren’t turned off, unless, in some cases, officers turned off their parked vehicles, which turns off the computer as well, but I don’t know for sure that that occurred.”
Police spokesperson Sean Whitcomb adds that five of the ten car cams were activated but none filmed the shooting. The call required a “quick and quiet” response he said; that meant not using overhead emergency lights which activate cameras.
In the view of the October 22 Coalition, the death of Keewatinawin was an “execution.” The officers said “they killed Jack for raising a one pound bar of re-bar at them. Other testimony shows that Jack was having a mental problem and was terrified and trying to get away because they had shot him with a taser.”
According to inquest interrogatories (a serial of factual findings) provided by county prosecutor spokesperson Dan Donohoe, jurors on August 21 found that Keewatinawin posed an “imminent risk of death or bodily injury” to the three shooting officers, Tyler Speer, Stephen Speery and Michael Spaulding. Jurors unanimously agreed the officers’ lethal actions were justified.
There’s one more inquest set for this year, December 9, that of Russell L. Smith, 51, killed by Bellevue Police SWAT officers in a joint operation with Seattle Police March 22. They sought to arrest Smith on a robbery warrant in Columbia City when, police said, he tried to escape in a car he drove at them, and was shot dead. Neighbors raised concerns about the tactics and questioned some of the police claims. But Bellevue police said the shooting was justified. History suggests that assertion will be confirmed.