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Working Toward Systemic Change in Public Safety

Two nights ago King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced that he would not be filing criminal charges against Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk. Birk shot and killed John T. Williams on August 30, 2010.  This is very discouraging and undoubtedly sends another signal to the community that our police and public safety system is broken.

I am disappointed that the King County Prosecutor finds no grounds to proceed with criminal action in this incident. Satterberg’s decision turned on the question of whether Birk acted in good faith – whether he reasonably anticipated that Williams was about to attack him – and from the facts I have seen, I struggle characterizing Birk’s actions as such.

While we can talk about mistakes that Birk or Satterberg made, these are individual mistakes, and the problem lies in our system. Shifting the blame to the King County Prosecutor or the officer detracts from the real work that needs to be done right here in Seattle and within the Seattle Police Department.

I feel that it is important to recognize that the majority of Seattle Police Officers do outstanding work throughout their careers. However, as an elected official, it is clear to me that the public has lost faith in the system. I like to think of the visibility of these incidents as similar to those of airplanes. We expect Boeing airplanes to land successfully 100% of the time – they are large pieces of machinery that need to be safe for the millions of people boarding them every day. Similarly, police officers need to meet that same high standard – we expect them to interact with the public in a way that assures them their safety. A single incident that misses this standard is cause for concern, but the pattern we have seen in the last year calls for visible action.

While I believe the leadership at the police department fully recognizes the importance of taking immediate action, it is also clear that the public is not yet convinced that their actions will result in noticeable change.  Changes will take time, but the Seattle Police Department also needs to do a better job of explaining exactly what actions they are taking, why they are taking them, and how they expect different results from these actions.

Finally, I hope that as a city we take a critical look at the public safety system and the many underlying injustices that are perpetuated. The people of Seattle, regardless of who they are, need to feel safe and confident that the police system will protect them.

Seattle is an amazing city. I have watched as countless advocates have showed up repeatedly to City Hall to voice their concerns. I watched at the Stranger’s Police Accountability panel the pure passion we have to make Seattle the best it can be – and the number of people willing to show up and volunteer their time to get things done. That panel had to open another room for overflow. Similarly, I sat and listened last year as we were briefed on the situation of trafficking in Seattle, another event that was standing room only because the people in Seattle want to make Seattle a better place. The other day, when Satterberg’s decision was announced, there was a protest here in city hall. I watched as the community mobilized on behalf of a man who was killed and a greater cause – to ensure justice in the public safety system when wrong is done.

I remain committed to making the system better and I welcome your thoughts on how this can be done.

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