Seattle Probes Police Shooting Of Native American

Seattle has been shaken by a pair of police-involved shootings — the most troubling of which took the life of a Native American man, who may not have understood — or even heard — the warnings from the officer who shot him.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

In this part of the program we're going to hear about controversies involving the law enforcement community on the West Coast. Two cities have been troubled by police shootings. In Los Angeles, protestors clashed with police after officers shot and killed a man from Guatemala, who, according to police, was holding a knife.

Seattle has been shaken by the shooting that took the life of a Native American man who may not have understood or even heard police warnings. From Seattle, NPR's Martin Kaste has the story.

MARTIN KASTE: The victim was John T. Williams, a 50-year-old of Native ancestry who was known around downtown for his wood-carving.�And it's the carving that got him killed.�On August 30th, a young cop saw Williams carrying a piece of wood and a three-inch blade. He ordered Williams to drop the knife.�Williams was slow to respond. And from a distance of nine feet, the officer shot at Williams four times.

Ms. PAMELA BOND: Why does he need to fire four shots without asking for help?��

KASTE: Pamela Bond was one of many Native Americans who took turns grilling the police chief at a special meeting on Wednesday night.�Anger has been growing since it was reported that Williams was partially deaf.

Ms. BOND: It's wrong.�And it's made my stomach feel rotten, and it's so rotten I can't retch it out.

KASTE: For two hours, Police Chief John Diaz and his deputies sat stoically, absorbing the crowd's anger.�When Diaz spoke, he was asked to hold an eagle feather to assure his truthfulness.��

Police Chief JOHN DIAZ (Seattle Police Department): That's what is the most important thing that could come out of this, is that you have answers, and you will.

He said the investigation would be transparent. But that's cold comfort to Natives and other minority groups in Seattle, who point to a series of recent incidents involving the police, such as the cop who punched a black girl when she resisted arrest for jaywalking, or the Latino man who was kicked in the head and insulted by an anti-gang unit - both incidents caught on video.�

At Wednesday's meeting, Finette Blackbear said she thinks there's just something's up with the Seattle police.

Ms. FINETTE BLACKBEAR: I think the cops are more jumpier.�You know, they're trigger-happy. I'll tell you that much.

KASTE: If police are jumpy, it's not surprising. Last fall, four cops in suburban Tacoma were gunned down in a coffee shop, and the killer was eventually hunted down in Seattle.�Weeks earlier, a Seattle police officer was ambushed and killed in his squad car, allegedly by Christopher Monfort, a man angry over police brutality. Monfort is now headed to trial. And every chance he gets, he rails against the police in open court.��

Kathleen Taylor, head of the ACLU of Washington State, says she certainly hopes the cop killings of last year haven't affected police behavior.

Ms. KATHLEEN TAYLOR: If they start thinking that everybody is another Monfort, we'd end up in an armed camp.

KASTE: But the ACLU is worried. In an open letter, Taylor called for an end to what she described as a pattern of violence by Seattle police.�The department called the criticism objectionable, and it pointed to the multiple forms of citizen oversight and the constant review of police officers' use of firearms.

Mr. SAMUEL WALKER: And they've really made some major improvements.

KASTE: Samuel Walker, an expert on police accountability, says the Seattle Police Department has taken steps over the years to overcome an earlier reputation for excessive force.�But he says it's nearly impossible to know how well those steps have worked because the federal government does not collect good statistics on shootings by police.�

Mr. WALKER: They do report officers, you know, assaulted and killed in the line of duty.� And they really need - we really need a database on officer-involved shootings.

KASTE: Walker says it is clear that police shoot less often now than they did a generation ago, back when departments first started training officers to shoot only in defense of life, as opposed to shooting suspects just for fleeing.

But he says if there were more detailed statistics available now, you'd also be able to compare the records of police in Seattle or Los Angeles or any other city, and it might be easier to distinguish between a rash of shootings and a Trend.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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