Councilmember O'Brien left office on December 31, 2019. This website is for archival purposes only and is no longer updated.

Working Toward Systemic Change in Public Safety

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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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Comment from Kyle
Time February 24, 2011 at 3:58 am

I am glad you’re taking a strong, public stance against the actions of the Seattle Police Department. Having elected public officials, who are the voice of Seattle citizens, step in is a must. The most important thing in regaining my trust needs to be a public apology made by the SPD, and in taking accountability for what has happened. Not only in the death of Williams, but in many, many other instances city-wide. It should be noted that the King County Sheriffs have as much to do with the problem as the SPD, when looking back at the fate of Christopher Harris, or the 15-year-old girl beaten by officers Schene and Brunner, among others. Thirdly, the promotion of 10 officers to handle public relations was wrong; these promotions are a waste of tax-payer money when nothing has been done to improve relations. Instead, quit talking about change in training and policy, and actually make changes. Finally, allow citizens to sit on a review board who have the power to review new hires and promotions and fire officers who have lost our trust. Without citizen involvement in this process, trust will be much harder to gain; as it stands today, they’re only looking out for themselves, not to those they’ve sworn to protect.

Comment from mike
Time February 24, 2011 at 6:57 am

“While we can talk about mistakes that Birk or Satterberg made, these are individual mistakes, and the problem lies in our system.”

The problem lies in the SPD, which is led by Diaz. There are abuse tapes coming out faster than we can keep track.

To tolerate that (lack of) leadership in our PD is criminal on YOUR part. You know what you need to do, now you only need the cajones to do it. Dare I say were that a White kid in that store getting kicked or on the ground getting the ‘Mexican piss’ stomped out of him Diaz would have been gone.

But like the South Park Bridge, demographics are all that matter in Seattle. How many more people have to die at the hands of SPD before you guys actually stop talking and take ACTION?

No faith in you or the system. You should all resign. You have made a disgusting mess of our City.

Comment from Leonard(Lenny)Larson
Time February 26, 2011 at 12:25 am

I have faith in our police officers and Chief Diaz. We cannot blame the whole force of some 300 officers for the blantant misjudgement and behavior of possibly 6 or 7 officers.
Again it is poor judgement, stress, and their behavior gone awry.
Perhaps some social and psychological training should be the norm for current and new recruits.
Further, as the Mayor suggested, more of the 80% of officers who apparently live outside the city should move inside. I cannot see the the behavior or judgments personnel would make would be any different.
Any infractions as have been forthcoming from the incidents officers have committed should be dealth with according to police procedures and law.
To any criminals or would be criminals I say ” if you don’t do the crime, you won’t do the time.”
Respectfully, Lenny Larson, No. Beacon Hill

Comment from Richard Wittauer
Time March 1, 2011 at 1:32 am

In reference to your reply to my e-mail that came from Sahar Fathi to me on not enforcing the non enforcement rule toward to the Seattle Police Department, this is unheard of. The laws were made to cover all races not just afew. Tell your officers to in force them. It’s mad to order them not to in force any law no matter of the weight it carry’s with the political point of view. When I heard on Fox News about this happening today I came unglued on what’s happening to American and now taking place were I was born 63 years ago.

Comment from Jalair Box
Time April 25, 2017 at 7:39 am

Councilmember O’Brien, the piano you are playing has a wide range of notes. When you play within a narrow range, you miss the song. Here are some of the notes you are missing:

“Police officers have increasingly become the first, and often only, responders to people in crisis due to untreated mental illnesses.”
— GOB Project 193: Mental health diversion facility service capacity and fiscal impact estimates
Miami-Dade County, June 9, 2016

My suggestion: That you request a ride along with the City of Seattle Police Department and bring one of the people who commented above with you. Do this once a month for a year.

I believe that you have compassion for *all* people in your district, including our first responders. Do your part to represent all of us, please. The more you play exclusively to anti-police sentiments, the less we can hear each other. It’s your duty. Thank you.

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