On August 30, 2010, Native American woodcarver John T. Williams was crossing the street while carving a piece of wood when he was shot and killed by a Seattle Police Department officer. John, 50, a member of the Nitinaht First Nation was deaf in one ear and didn’t immediately respond to Officer Ian Birk’s calls to put his knife down. Less than five seconds after giving his first command, Officer Birk had shot John four times.
John descends from generations of well-known and respected carvers whose work is part of museum collections and has been sold for more than a century at Seattle’s famous Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. He carved his first totem when he was just 4 years old and knew more than 250 figures by heart.
Even with a long history of alcohol abuse and homelessness, carving in Seattle’s Victor Steinbrueck Park was a near constant activity towards the end of John’s life. He spent the morning of the shooting in the park with his brother, Rick Williams, carving together. Rick was waiting for John to rejoin him when he heard about what had happened.
In February 2011, the Seattle Police Department’s Firearms Review Board found unequivocally that the use of deadly force by Officer Birk was unjustified and recommended that Officer Birk be “stripped of all Seattle Police powers and authority.” Shortly thereafter, Officer Birk resigned. In April of 2011, the city settled all legal claims with the Williams family for $1.5 million.
Rick, who visits his brother’s grave weekly, is teaching his own sons to carve so that they will carry on the family tradition. He also continues to carve in Victor Steinbrueck Park where he last spent time with his brother.
At StoryCorps, Rick (right) and his friend, Jay Westwind Wolf Hollingsworth (left), remember John and the day that he was killed.
Originally aired October 7, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.