The Killing of Kajieme Powell and How It Divides Americans

Blogger Chris Connelly believes the St. Louis police could learn something from their British analogs:

I suspect the protocol in Britain would be to park at a relatively distance, order civilians to get back, call for back-up and specialist assistance, while monitoring to ensure that Mr. Powell poses no threat to himself or anybody else. What caused the situation to escalate to the point that the police felt so threatened that they needed to open fire in a mentally ill man carrying a knife at his side was the arrival of the police. There is a serious problem in how US police perceive and deal with "threats." Mentally-ill people, even ones with knives, are primarily a threat to themselves.
I know that American police face different risks than British ones, and that gun violence is higher... so let's park the gun issue and look at the threat from knives on its own. In 2013 armed police were deployed in the UK about 12,000 times. They fired 3 shots and killed nobody. I don't know how many of those incidents involved knives, but I suspect it was more than one. The St. Louis P.D. bested that in 15 seconds when they fired 9 bullets into Mr. Powell. American gun enthusiasts and police officers always say "you don't shoot to wound, you shoot to neutralize the threat." So do British police, and they successfully neutralize the threat with both fewer shots fired and fewer dead citizens. "But the British armed police are top marksmen!" is usually another reply.
Well... that's an argument for better firearms training of US officers instead of an excuse for their poor accuracy...
The most disturbing aspect of this for me is that the police fired several bullets into Kajieme Powell's body while he lay wounded on the ground, and yet they apparently wanted this video released as it was "exculpatory." There exists a very deep chasm between what the Police view as justified and what, I think, most reasonable citizens would.  In a democratic country where the rule of law exists in such a difference of opinion the difference must always be settled on the side of the people, who are sovereign. In the United States it seems to be settled far too frequently, to put it at its lowest, on the side of the Police.

Said a Reddit commenter:

This is the type of thing that happens when a cop fails to act appropriately in an extremely dangerous situation. [That, too, is a disturbing video of a shootout between a police officer and a mentally ill Vietnam veteran. But there's no need to watch beyond where the shooting starts to see the commenter's point.]

A Tumblr author writes:

I’m posting this for anyone who has ever said “not all cops”. For anyone who doesn’t think racism, anti-blackness, or police brutality are real issues. I’m posting this for everyone who immediately says “but let’s wait for all the facts first” or “they probably deserved it” when ever they hear about innocent lives being taken at the hands of police officers. I’m posting this for anyone who thinks “it was just another dumbass kid” or “stop making such a big deal out of these things” or “omg it’s not about race”. I’m posting this for anyone who spent even 1 millisecond of these past 11 days trying to justify the murder of Mike Brown. I dare you to try and justify the murder of this young man.

Rest in peace Kajieme Powell

Said another on the same platform:

 The officers both exited the vehicle with pistols drawn on a shoplifting call, upon seeing a man without a drawn weapon walking around on a sidewalk. There were people watching further down the block, but nobody in immediate proximity. They were not overwhelmed; two other officers were there within 60 seconds of the shooting, and four within 90 seconds; it was a flood of police.

I’ve seen police respond to erratic-behaviour calls of people with far bigger knives than this guy had. I’ve seen police respond to shoplifting calls. I’ve seen police respond to assault calls, to knife-fight-in-progress calls, to armed-and-presumed-dangerous calls… and I have not seen a response like this. There was no attempt to talk him down; there was no attempt to do anything other than bark orders for 10 seconds or so, then unload.

To me, it looks like they went in with the assumption they’d be shooting this man down, and did so, 14 seconds after exiting their vehicle. They went in with a plan - if you can call it that - of immediate compliance, or death. And they went with death.

Here's a third Tumblr author:

...what makes it worse is he was murdered 4 miles away from where Michael Brown was murdered. it’s demoralizing to me. because I want justice, I want equality, but deep down I know that we’ll never achieve it. it’s all a system, & for the people who run the system; there’s no money in equality. there’s no power if everyone is equal. so because of my skin, I’m preordained to be a target. preordained to be subjected to hate from those with the same pigment as the folks who run the system. maybe I sound like a conspiracy theorist, but i’m just venting… go watch the video.

And a fourth:

Oh god yeah I did.  That made me nearly throw up.  And I made the mistake of watching the video and it was devastating.  They don’t even try to treat us like people.  They treat us like we’re rabid animals that need to be put down for “public safety”, but some asshole with a trunk full of guns can cause all sorts of mayhem and get gently placed in the back of a squad car because he’s white.  The fact that Kajieme Powell could have been a person with mental illness and they showed up with guns drawn, THEN handcuffed him after he was killed…that horrified me.   

My brother is Autistic, and he has issues with personal contact and he dislikes when people speak to him in a certain octave, it really throws him off.  He’s also tall.  I’m scared to death that people would shoot him like that, because black people with mental illness or disabilities don’t get the support systems or the treatment that white men screaming the same things with guns in their hands get.  

The fact that people handle school shooters with kid gloves because they “might” have mental illness but shoot a black person down within 30 seconds of encountering him, and people just call him a “knife wielding suspect” and didn’t harm anyone?  That is disgusting.    

Here's another Redditor:

They did not empty their clips. They shot 4-5 rounds in a very short period of time each. Their mags carry about 11 rounds so they actually stopped firing right when they were supposed to.

If you want to argue 9-10x is a lot then you're thinking from your perspective not theirs. In that short span of time the officers do not have time to check with one another for who fired where, what hit, and how many times they each fired. They fired until he fell.

So, why did they fire after he fell? Adrenaline. That man was prepared for them, probably working up a ton of adrenaline. Any scenario like that has adrenaline pumping on both sides. They didn't know how many bullets were fired or how many hit and where they hit. They also didn't know if he'd get up and attack them. It's a gray area but they put 2-3 rounds in him when he hit the ground because of 2 reasons....

  • 1: They thought he was a threat who might get up.
  • 2: It happened so fast it took their mind a second to come out of the haze and go "whoa, whoa he's down, stop".

The officers stopping when they did (when most would simply unload) shows restraint as opposed to blood lust or getting lost in the moment. You have to remember, officers are people too. They have families, homes to return to, and when they get afraid for their lives they'll act in defense of it just like anyone else would. Training in this situation helped them stop firing but in reality you cannot train yourself for the intense emotions those two officers felt when they shot that man. 

And two more besides:


And a final Twitter reaction:

That isn't the full spectrum of arguments, reactions, and emotions, but it reflects the very different ways various people of good will are responding to the same footage. 

Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Why Do People Love Times Square?

A filmmaker asks New Yorkers and tourists about the allure of Broadway's iconic plaza


A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.



More in National

Just In