Huffington Post reports:
St. Louis officials have identified the 25-year-old man shot dead yesterday in an officer-involved shooting that happened only a few miles from where Michael Brown was killed by police earlier this month.
Authorities said Kajieme Powell stole donuts and energy drinks from a store yesterday afternoon, which prompted the owner to call police, according to KSDK. When two officers arrived shortly before 1 p.m., they said they observed Powell acting erratically. He refused to put down a knife when commanded to do so, police said. […]
In a statement delivered yesterday before a crowd near the scene of the shooting, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said that both officers opened fire on Powell after the suspect came within three or four feet of police while holding the knife in an “overhand grip.”
TRIGGER WARNING: This is a cell phone video of the police officers shooting Kajieme Powell. It shows some context both before and after the shooting. The shooting itself is filmed at a significant distance from the camera and cannot be seen in graphic detail. Nonetheless, the video shows a young man being shot to death, and is disturbing to watch.
A few comments:
1) The video shows that some of what Chief Dotson claimed was not true; Powell was not within four feet of the police when shooting began, nor did he appear to be using an “overhand grip” (which to me indicates a knife raised as if to stab downward, like an overhand throwing motion).
2) Nonetheless, I think the shooting was legal. Powell had a weapon (a steak knife), he didn’t drop it when ordered to, and he moving towards the police officers. As I understand it, police have a legal right to defend themselves, with deadly force, under that circumstance.
3) Nonetheless (again), I think the way the police acted here, while legal, was horribly wrong. Powell wasn’t an immediate threat to anyone until the police arrived; this was not a violent life-or-death situation until the police arrived. If the police make everything worse by showing up, then something is wrong with their policing.
4) For example, why did the police get out of their car so quickly, or at all? They obviously perceived getting out of their car as dangerous, since they drew their guns as they got out, and police aren’t supposed to draw and point their guns if there’s no danger. But when they pulled up, no one was in immediate danger. There was no need to force an immediate confrontation. A slower, calmer assessment of the situation from within the car, or from a greater distance, might have been better.
5) If the police are justified in using deadly force in response to any level of physical threat to police, then police have a huge moral responsibility never to knowingly put themselves in that situation, unless it’s already a life-or-death matter.
6) I’m sure someone will say “what if it had been you there, with only seconds to make a decision?” I have a lot of sympathy for officers forced to make split-second decisions; it’s a terrible burden. But sympathy shouldn’t exempt police decision-making from criticism or skeptical examination.
7) If, instead of a couple of American cops, Powell had been facing a couple of British Bobbies, who do not typically use guns when carrying out their duties, odds are overwhelming that both the police and Powell would have survived the encounter.
8) Impossible not to suspect that a white suspect might have been given more of a chance.
It is impossible not to wonder what would have happened if the police didn’t have deadly force on their hips, if all they had were tasers or batons. It is impossible not to wonder what would have happened if the police had simply never shown up at all.
It is easy to criticize. It is easy to watch a cell phone video and think of all the ways it could have gone differently. It is easy to forget that the police saw a mentally unbalanced man with a knife advancing on them. It is easy to forget that 20 seconds only takes 20 seconds. It is easy to forget that police get scared. It is easy not to ask yourself what you might have done if you had a gun and a man came at you with a knife.
But there is still something wrong with that video. There is something wrong that the video seems obviously exculpatory to the police and obviously damning to so many who watch it. The dispute over the facts in the Michael Brown case offers the hope that there is a right answer — that Wilson either did clearly the right thing or clearly the wrong thing. The video of the Powell case delivers a harder reality: what the police believe to be the right thing and what the people they serve believe to be the right thing may be very different.
This man needed help. He had a knife, but he also, clearly, had an illness. After watching the video, Vox’s Amanda Taub said, “I keep thinking about the times when I have called 911 because I have encountered a mentally ill person in public who seems unsafe. I don’t know how I would live with it if this had been the result.” There has to have been a way for the police to have protected Kajieme Powell rather than killed him.