The Killing of Kajieme Powell and How It Divides Americans

The mentally disturbed man was shot to death by St. Louis law-enforcement officers after walking toward them with a knife. Video of the incident has sparked debate about the police's reaction.
Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

The police officers who shot and killed Kajieme Powell, 25, in St. Louis, Missouri, on Tuesday did so while being recorded by a man with a cell phone camera. St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and police union officials say the video is exculpatory and that the two officers on the scene followed proper protocol. Many who've watched the shooting grant that the police were put in a difficult, volatile, potentially deadly situation, but still feel that their actions were wrongheaded. The footage certain to be debated in coming days begins at the 1:20 mark. Be forewarned that the video shows a man being shot repeatedly and killed. Due to its disturbing nature some readers may prefer to skip watching it entirely.

What I see in this video (as well as in an even clearer version that CNN somehow obtained) is a man almost certainly suffering from mental illness who deliberately provokes these police officers, putting them in a terrible, unfair position that will probably haunt them forever—and police officers who immediately played into the orchestrated confrontation that the seemingly unstable man created. I also see an incident that contradicts what Police Chief Sam Dotson described to onlookers at the scene, as reported by the St. Louis Dispatch. The discrepancy comes after police arrive and start giving Powell orders...

...but he became more agitated and walked toward them, reaching for his waistband. Witnesses told police the man was yelling, “Shoot me, kill me now,” during the encounter, Dotson said. The officers drew their weapons and ordered Powell to stop. He did stop, but then pulled out a knife and came at the officers, gripping and holding it high, Dotson said. They ordered him to stop and drop the knife. When he got within 2 or 3 feet of the officers, they fired, killing Powell.

Was Powell holding a knife high as he approached the police officers? I don't see that. It looks to me as though his arms remain low at his sides, and that detail doesn't appear in the police report. The cause of this disparity isn't clear, but the position of the knife doesn't significantly change how much of a threat it posed, anyways.

When I first watched the video, I wanted the officers to back up to buy time as the man slowly approached. A police training video helped me to better understand the mindset of the officers, given the information that they've likely been given about research into the distance at which a man with a knife is dangerous:

With that in mind, it seems to me that the initial set-up chosen by the police officers was the bigger problem. The man with the knife wasn't anywhere near other onlookers and perhaps could've been calmed or incapacitated with less than lethal force had the officers given themselves more space and time. If they had it do to over, would they have parked farther away, or stood on the other side of their vehicle while engaging the man? Would they assert themselves less confrontationally? (On the other hand, would you or I do any better in their place?)

"It is easy to criticize," Ezra Klein writes. "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." All true. "But there is still something wrong with that video," he adds, doing his best to articulate specific objections that I share:

​The police arrive and instantly escalate the situation... Powell looks sick more than he looks dangerous. But the police draw their weapons as soon as they exit their car... They don't seem to know how to stop Powell, save for using deadly force. But all Powell had was a steak knife. If the police had been in their car, with the windows rolled up, he could have done little to hurt them...

...Even when he advances on police, he walks, rather than runs... He swings his arms normally, rather than entering into a fighting stance. They begin yelling at him to stop. And when they begin shooting, they shoot to kill—even continuing to shoot when Powell is motionless on the ground. There is no warning shot, even. It does not seem like it should be so easy to take a life.

That's how I felt, too.

A police officer might retort that law enforcement shouldn't be obligated to take on any extra risk to their own lives in a dangerous situation wholly and needlessly created by a person menacing them. A citizen deliberately baiting police with a deadly weapon cannot expect restraint. Even a small knife can be deadly.

In the abstract, I can't disagree with those principles—and if questionable police killings were confined to such circumstances, there'd be less cause than now to complain about overzealous law enforcement. Yet watching this video, it seems certain in hindsight that the threat could've been stopped with force short of at least nine and as many as 12 gunshots; and again, if they'd kept more initial distance between themselves and a man they knew to have a knife before they even arrived, perhaps no deadly threat would've materialized. If they'd stood well back and engaged, perhaps Powell would've kept coming with a knife until stopped.

But they didn't even attempt that strategy. (As Elizabeth Brown notes, deadly interactions with the mentally ill happen a lot, and failure to even try deescalating is often a factor.) I suspect that Klein is right when he says that in this case, despite clear video evidence of what happened, "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."

Perhaps highlighting different reactions will at least clarify how different Americans feel about the same incident. If nothing else, a gulf in public opinion almost certainly undermines the effectiveness of police departments that depend on community support. With that in mind, here are some illuminating reactions to the killing.

A Gawker commenter identifying himself as a police officer writes:

People expect police officers to be individuals of outstanding moral fiber, with remarkable intelligence, able to know and articulate city/county ordinances, state statutes, and court decision, and also have no prejudices. The problem is that most places in America are cutting police staff, cutting wages, stopping pay raises, and attacking officers pension. The person who meets those above qualifications can most likely find a much less stressful job, with much better benefits and salary. You get what you pay for. If you want a highly professional, intelligent police force, you need to compensate as such.

I mention all of these things because in this shooting, you have officers arriving to a clearly disturbed person. This person arms themselves with a knife, and indicates that he wants to die. The problem is that logic will usually not work with someone in this state. He forces the officers hands, and unfortunately, he is killed. Instead of asking why officers had to shoot him, ask where his family/friends were? Did they recognize the signs of mental illness and ignore it? Did they attempt to get him help and the horrible mental health system we have here fail him? Officers have a duty to protect and serve, but its not the individual for whom they do this, but society.

A disturbed man with a knife poses a serious danger to all of the rest of the citizens, and the officers had to stop that threat.

Again, though, did they have to immediately put themselves in such close proximity to a man with a knife? Couldn't they have tried to talk him down if they'd shouted from a distance rather than immediately getting close with guns drawn?

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:

Reddit

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. 

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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.

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