A Restorative Circle in the Wake of a Police Shooting
On August 30, 2010, a Seattle police officer shot and killed John T. Williams, a First Nations wood carver, while he was walking down a sunny downtown street with the tools of his trade — a piece of wood and a small carving knife. The officer got out of his car, walked toward Mr. Williams with a drawn gun, and yelled three times to “Put the knife down!” Seconds later, he fired four times, killing him. The officer later testified he felt threatened by the knife.
Tensions between the Seattle Police Department and the community erupted, replete with demonstrations, protests, and emotionally charged community meetings filled with expressions of grief and anger. The incident sparked widespread outrage, revealed cultural misunderstanding, and exposed a lack of trust between the police department, the Native American community, economically marginalized communities, and the broader community. The shooting was one of a series of interactions in which Seattle police officers used force against members of different minority communities, a perceived pattern that increased for many a sense of vulnerability and lack of safety with the police. And a year before, two Seattle police officers were shot and killed while parked in their marked car, targets simply because they were police. As a result, many officers also were on edge, with a heightened concern about their own vulnerability and well-being.
Community Anger, Tensions, and Wisdom
Immediately after the shooting, public attention turned to Rick Williams, the surviving elder brother of John T. Williams and also a master carver. He became a spokesman for the Williams family. Despite his grief and anger, Rick Williams, by his own account, found strength in the wisdom of his ancestors and rejected calls for violence and retribution against the police. He requested that the response to the shooting be peaceful, in respect for his brother. By his example and explicit requests, he helped keep the peace in the streets where many felt despair, outrage, the need for change, and an urge for revenge.
The investigative and legal review processes started right away, but they would take many months to complete. The Seattle Police Department convened its firearms review board. The results were to be forwarded to the King County Prosecutor for an inquest, a formal legal process before a jury. The process is designed to reveal facts about the cause of death in officer-involved killings. Then there would be a criminal charging decision by the prosecutor and an internal investigation in the police department.
My law office, MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, undertook representation of the Williams family for the inquest and the civil rights claims that would follow, together with Connie Sue Williams, a lawyer and Williams’s family friend. My colleague, Tim Ford, led the inquest and litigation while I focused on addressing the immediate and ongoing conflicts between the surviving family members and the Seattle Police Department — issues that the existing justice system simply is not designed to address.
In the weeks after the shooting, members of the Williams family reported strained interactions with members of the police department, including increased scrutiny and harassment by bicycle patrol officers where they worked and sold their art at the Pike Place Market. Tensions were building. Something had to be done to address the immediate needs for safety and improve the relationship between the family, the community, and the police department.
With the urgency of escalating tension, I called an assistant chief to accept what we understood to be a prior invitation to have a meeting between the family and the chief of police. That invitation was a divine misunderstanding, but one I suggested we follow anyway, to address the emergent needs and honor the expectations of the family. With just a few days notice, we held a meeting between the family, an assistant chief, and Kathryn Olson, the Seattle Police Department’s director of the Office of Professional Accountability. But a traditional meeting in these circumstances was not sufficient, the ongoing conflicts were not resolved, and the tensions continued to escalate.
On behalf of the family, I proposed that we approach the conflict a different way and hold a Restorative Circle consistent with a restorative justice practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter. I had begun learning and practicing this powerful process, and it was the best method for engaging community conflict that I knew. I offered to facilitate. Police Chief John Diaz immediately agreed to the family’s request. Faced with community outrage over a problematic shooting that would require a lengthy investigation process, Chief Diaz embraced the invitation and a cutting-edge approach that would provide him and the Seattle Police Department an immediate opportunity to address the pain and issues involving the family and the larger community.
There was no restorative justice system in place nor any prior experience with Restorative Circles, so I worked with Kathryn Olson to create a shared understanding of the process we would use to hold this circle. We modified aspects of the Restorative Circle process to address the unusual circumstances. I was able to hold pre-circle meetings with the family members, friends, and community members, but it was not possible for me to meet in advance with most of the police department participants. Instead, I worked with Ms. Olson and provided her written summaries of the Restorative Circles process to share with the other participants in the Seattle Police Department. In all of this, I aimed to stay true to restorative principles and be flexible with the form of how the process unfolded.
To focus the Restorative Circle, I worked with Rick Williams to explore what was said or done that he wanted to bring to it. In advance, everyone recognized and agreed that the subject and details of the shooting would be off limits: investigation of the use of force was underway, an inquest was planned, potential civil liability of the City of Seattle was at issue, and civil and criminal accountability of the officer remained to be determined — all of these were obvious barriers to open and direct communication. Yet, we realized we didn’t need to talk about the details of the shooting itself to address the dynamics and conditions that gave rise to it and continued after it.
Rick Williams decided to focus instead on interactions between the family and other police officers following the shooting that were symbolic of the tensions between them and the increased scrutiny, harassment, and lack of respect the family was experiencing from the police. For example, an officer said to Rick, “You people need to learn how to obey.” As another example, a teen-aged member of the Williams family asked an officer: “I am a carver and these are my tools. If I have this knife, will you shoot me, too?” The officer responded, “You don’t want to test that theory now, do you?” By choosing an action following the shooting, but symbolic of the underlying tensions, we found a portal through which to explore the deeper rifts and ongoing conflicts between the Seattle Police Department, the family, and the community.
Who needed to be present to resolve the conflict? Rick and Eric Williams, brothers and master carvers; friend and carver, Dan Martin, and his wife, Connie Sue Martin, another lawyer for the family; two leaders of the Chief Seattle Club, an agency that provides services and support to urban Native Americans; Police Chief John Diaz, as well as three key departmental officials in the chain of command above the officers (who were not present because they could not be identified); Sergeant Fred Ibuki, an officer Rick Williams trusted, who knew his father and three generations of Williams family carvers; and Kathryn Olson from the Office of Professional Accountability. Rick Williams’s children were invited but chose not to participate. I served as facilitator along with a co-facilitator, Susan Partnow.
When People in Crisis Meet in Sacred Space
On September 13, 2010, we held the Restorative Circle for over three hours at the Chief Seattle Club in a sacred space designed for traditional Native American healing circles. The Restorative Circle process provided a safe container for the participants to openly express and seek to understand what mattered deeply to them and to connect meaningfully with others linked through this shared tragedy, shared conflict. Everyone had the opportunity to express where they were in relation to the incident and what they were seeking at the time they chose to act or reacted to the incident. Everyone had the opportunity to contribute to the solution and develop an action plan together.
The carvers expressed their fear and need for safety, understanding, value, and respect for who they are, the traditions they uphold as First Nations people and seventh-generation master wood carvers, and the viability of their art and business that has been a central part of Seattle for decades. From my observations, the Seattle Police Department participants heard what was said and seemed moved by what they heard. In the action planning, the carvers invited John Diaz and other participants to take off the badge and gun and sit with them, get to know them. John Diaz and the other representatives agreed to do so.
The carvers expressed anger over what they perceived to be a lack of respect shown by many newer officers for First Nations/Native American people, other minorities, and the homeless, as well as about the way the “command and control” approach demands obedience and escalates quickly and unnecessarily into use of force to punish those the police don’t like or who don’t obey. As Rick Williams asked bluntly: “Who gives you the right to play God?” The Seattle Police Department members heard it. In the action planning, a request was made that Fred Ibuki and other seasoned veterans mentor newer officers in developing relationships based upon mutual respect. The officer who shot John T. Williams had been on the police force for only two years.
The police department members agreed to review policies and training regarding the use of force. Police also agreed that they would continue to evaluate mechanisms for sustaining and weaving in training regarding diversity, respect, and emotional intelligence, as well as to consider specific curriculum related to Native American culture. Seattle Police Department command staff and Fred Ibuki further agreed to attend roll calls and immediately teach what they learned in the Restorative Circle.
Fred Ibuki also agreed to be available by cell phone to address any emerging issues between the family and police officers.
John Diaz and other members of the police department shared their regret and sadness for harm done and trust broken with the family and within the Native American community. They expressed the importance of serving the whole community and recognized that as trust and respect is earned over time, they are committed to a community-based policing model with the goal of developing these meaningful relationships. The family heard it.
The Chief Seattle Club representatives said reports of disrespectful interactions are common and that many in the Native American community who value safety are fearful to come forward to report negative treatment like that addressed in the circle for fear of retaliation. The Seattle Police Department heard it. Kathryn Olson expressed an interest in knowing what was happening and having a reporting process that was safe to use. Together, she and the Chief Seattle Club representatives agreed to review the internal complaint process.
Near the end of the circle, a request was made to not seek publicity, or use the Restorative Circle in any way in litigation. The urgent need at the time was to build relationships and trust. Subsequently, media made public records requests and publicized the fact that the Restorative Circle had occurred and the action plan that resulted. “Extraordinary meeting followed carver’s fatal shooting by Seattle officer,” headlined the Seattle Times. Ultimately, the community did benefit by knowing about the Restorative Circle and the agreements that were made to improve community/police relations.
The Restorative Circle transformed this conflict into an opportunity for healing, increased understanding, critical analysis of policy and practice, and lasting change. The participants courageously walked into the unknown. Eric Williams, John T. Williams’s brother, said: “It was painful. I didn’t know what I was walking into. It was pretty cool that everyone had a lot to say and share — the police, the lawyers, us.”
The participants expressed their difficult, often excruciating, experiences and revealed their hopes and needs for how it could be different. As one police commander stated: “I thought it took immense courage on Rick’s part to share so much and was helpful to see other carvers share their hurt/pain. I took away a deeper appreciation of what they do and its challenges. I also took away a share of the sense of loss of a brother, son, friend, and artist.”
While tense, sometimes messy, and often uncomfortable, the sharing and mutual respect in the circle allowed for deep conversation between the Seattle Police Department command staff and members of the family that had never happened before. It was safe to be real. “The Restorative Circle was extremely valuable in gaining better understanding of people’s perspectives,” said Mike Sanford. “The free flow of communications and some symbolic gestures/rules of engagement felt good in a difficult emotional environment.”
It also built trust. “They really listened. I have a sense that they will do the right thing,” said Dan Martin, a carver and friend of John T. Williams. It revealed the possibility for lasting change. Eric Williams said, “If [the police] followed through on the agreements, it would really make a difference.”
The Restorative Circle increased mutual understanding in the moment and invited a deepening of relationships and connections over time. Kathryn Olson, the civilian chair of the Office of Professional Accountability, said: “This provided hope for change and an opportunity to improve and address issues that would have gone unaddressed.” She further commented: “The key benefit was relationship building with the family, others close to the family, and the community. It was an opportunity to share and talk and grieve together and a safe space to do that. All of that was more important than the specific agreements going forward. The agreements allowed us a reason to keep talking with Rick and his family. His concerns were different than others.”
It resulted in immediate briefings by command staff to patrols at roll calls and commitment to explore more in-depth changes to Seattle Police Department policies, training, and practices that would enhance mutual respect, effectiveness, and harmony.
The process reinforced the possibility of lasting change and progress toward the ideal of peace officers as an integrated part of the community. As one of the police commanders said: “I like direct and open. It’s why I found the circle useful and a good thing. I lean toward harder edges, dark coffee, no yoga. In my world, getting a police force to see themselves as peace officers requires more direct and consistent communication.”
And it is making a difference. Rick Williams reports: “People are seeing a difference in how police are engaging on the streets, it has gotten much better. People tell me that they appreciate what we are doing. What we need are more opportunities for safe, direct, communications like those we had.”
Other pressures also resulted in changes to the Seattle Police Department. Following the shooting, community groups called for a federal Department of Justice civil rights investigation into the pattern and practices of the Seattle Police Department with a focus on use of force in minority communities. This investigation, initiated after the Restorative Circle, provided additional scrutiny, accountability, and external pressure on the police department.
The relationships developed at the Restorative Circle have deepened over time, through a series of visits, communications, and public events. Issues of concern were identified and discussed immediately to avert escalation, and engagement between the police on the streets and the family generally works more smoothly and respectfully now. Rick Williams and other members of the family continue to advocate for change and police accountability, directly and in public venues. And the shared understanding and connections from the Restorative Circle enabled peaceful and efficient navigation of ongoing, serious challenges and turned further devastating circumstances into additional opportunities for healing:
- When the King County Prosecutor declined to file criminal charges against the officer who shot John T. Williams, members of the family were devastated that there would be no accountability within the criminal justice system. As Rick Williams and many others felt at the time, the officer was “getting away with murder.” Protests erupted again in the community. At the same time, and as a positive step, the Seattle Police Department announced that it was taking responsibility to do what it could to address the situation. Chief Diaz reached out immediately and personally met with the family to communicate the police department’s internal investigation findings that the shooting was “unjustified,” that the officer’s actions were contrary to the policy and practice of the Seattle Police Department, which would undertake disciplinary and corrective action. The mayor, too, made a personal connection. The officer who shot Mr. Williams resigned from his job, reportedly as a result of the police department’s internal investigation findings.
- The parties resolved the civil rights claims for the estate of the late John T. Williams without the need or costs of extended litigation. In the mediation, the Williams family tolerated initial shuttle diplomacy then called for another direct, meaningful, and substantive exchange among all participants, consistent with the sharing cultivated in the Restorative Circle. This shifted the dynamic toward mutual understanding and allowed the settlement to be reached.
- In birthday celebrations and community memorial events honoring the late John T. Williams, Chief Diaz and other members of the command staff have been embraced and have participated as honored guests of the Williams family and others in the Native American Community.
- Rick Williams and other family members undertook another community healing process: a public art project to carve and raise a totem pole to honor the late John T. Williams and the native carving tradition. The City of Seattle and the Seattle Center are supporting the effort by donating public space for the carving and raising of the pole. Private fundraising is underway to finance the project with a goal of raising the pole on February 27, 2012, at the Seattle Center. The community participated in the creation of the art and is invited to purchase personalized tiles to raise the pole and line the plaza. You can join the John T. Williams Project here.
The Participants Meet Again
Months after the Restorative Circle, the participants gathered in a post-circle meeting to explore where we were in relation to the action agreements and their consequences — were the needs identified in the initial Restorative Circle met? What more needs to happen? In the post-circle gathering, the mood and needs were very different than in the original circle. Everyone had a sense of connection to one another and increased trust resulting from the agreements, actions, and ongoing contacts and relationships that had developed in the intervening months. The Seattle Police Department shared information about its progress on the agreements and initiatives to promote mutual respect and accountability in police/community relations. The family shared lasting grief, expressed a deep desire that all that happened was making a difference, and communicated ongoing concerns about street-level policing in the community. Police Chief Diaz recognized that the shooting itself, and the learning that followed, did make a positive difference; it added urgency to community-policing initiatives already underway and reaffirmed the importance of these and other necessary changes. A request was made by the family to have another Restorative Circle, this one focused on the shooting itself, inviting the officer, representatives of the Police Guild, and the King County Prosecutor. Because the Department of Justice has an open criminal investigation of the shooting, initiation of that Restorative Circle is on hold. Rick Williams also suggested regular gatherings between the police and the community, in the tradition of Native American healing circles. These circle processes have enabled him the opportunity for deep reflection and the ability to rehumanize the man who shot his brother. Rick Williams now articulates the shooting by the officer as a terrible “mistake” arising from “fear.”
On December 17, 2011, the Department of Justice released its findings on its civil investigation and determined that the City of Seattle Police Department has a pattern and practice of unconstitutionally excessive use of force and a need for serious structural reform in training, supervision, and discipline. It also found that force was used 50 percent of the time in communities of color and that the department’s actions toward minorities and the mentally ill need additional analysis and reform. In anticipation of the findings, the police department announced a plan to review and overhaul its use of force policies and procedures. After the report issued, the police department questioned the validity of some of the DOJ’s conclusions, but remained committed to improving its operations. The DOJ, the Seattle Police Department, and the community now will be working on a collaborative agreement to correct the identified problems.
In addition to the internal, structural changes needed to address use of force as required by the DOJ, and continued examination of police engagement with ethnic minorities and the mentally ill, the experience and model of the Williams Restorative Circle generates hope and momentum toward a fundamental shift of police/community relations toward community policing and relationships grounded in mutual understanding and respect. In Seattle, distance, anger, and pain remain from decades of command and control policing. The success of the Williams Restorative Circle fuels the promise that we can address that painful history, find mutual understanding, ensure accountability, and find a sense of well being and trust in agreed-upon actions moving forward. The value of the Restorative Circle practice itself feeds the vision that Seattle, the first city to adopt the Charter for Compassion, can establish and maintain an ongoing restorative justice system (to learn more about this, visit the Compassionate Seattle and the Compassionate Action Network International). Families, organizations, communities, schools, and city departments in Seattle are in the process of developing pilot projects and restorative systems to efficiently address emergent conflicts, build and deepen community relationships, and engage in collective problem solving. Living in a community that has a restorative framework for engaging conflict promises to shift consciousness from fear and punishment to the meeting of needs, reconciliation, restoration, and transformation.
Participants in the Williams Restorative Circle, including Rick Williams, together with other community leaders, are discussing the adoption of such a restorative justice system using Restorative Circles as part of the overall plan to transform police/community relations in Seattle. Can you imagine police officers and community members learning this practice of restorative justice together and using it to address conflicts and tensions so they don’t escalate into violent confrontation? Can you imagine a community empowered with the capacity and support to engage in the most difficult conversations, ensure accountability, and engage in collective action to solve common challenges? We can. Please join us.
(Click here to read more free online articles associated with Tikkun‘s Winter 2012 print issue on restorative justice. Don’t miss the print issue’s twelve inspiring, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking subscriber-only articles on this topic: subscribe now to read them on the web via the Winter 2012 Table of Contents or order a single copy in the mail.)
Brenneke, Andrea. 2012. A Restorative Circle in the Wake of a Police Shooting. Web-only article associated with Tikkun. 27(1).