Not All Situations Are Alike
On August 19, Kajieme Powell, a 25-year-old man, reportedly with a history of mental illness, walked into a convenience store armed with a knife and took two drinks without paying for them. After leaving the store, the owner followed him and asked him to pay for the drinks. Powell went back into the store, picked up a package of pastries, and came back out. When the owner asked him again to pay, Powell threw them into the street. The owner then called the police.
Powell did not try to go anywhere. He remained where he was, having put the two drinks down on the ground near the curb. It was at this point that someone started shooting a video of the event. Powell can be seen walking back and forth near the drinks. He is wearing a blue jacket, with his right hand in the pocket. A police cruiser arrives, and two officers step out of the vehicle. Powell approaches them and starts to yell, “Shoot me!” The officers tell him to take his hand out of his pocket; he does so. Although it cannot be seen clearly in the video, Powell is holding something, and the officers begin to shout, “Drop the knife!”
Powell approaches, then stops about 12 to 15 feet away, continuing to shout at the officers to shoot him. He then turns to his left and climbs up on an elevated parking space perhaps three feet above the sidewalk, describing an arc which leads him to walk towards the officer who exited the right-side door of the cruiser.
When Powell is about 8-10 feet away from the closer policeman, the officers begin firing. By the third shot, Powell is falling, by the fourth, he is down. The police continue firing, the first seven shots in quick succession. There is a moment’s pause as Powell rolls on the ground in front of the officer, then two more shots are fired—a total of nine shots. It is unclear from the video which officer fired how many shots.
One thing is clear: Powell was attempting to commit what is often described as “suicide by cop.” He was clearly not interested in consuming the food he took from the store, nor did he make any attempt to escape; he was, almost certainly, trying to cause the police to arrive, and was waiting for them. When they arrived, he did what he needed to do to get them to shoot him.
People are outraged at this video for a few very obvious reasons. Especially in the wake of the shooting in Ferguson, the shooting of a young black man by white police officers seems galling. The reports that Michael Brown was shot six times despite having his hands up in the air in a gesture of surrender brings to this event the idea that Powell was similarly helpless. The video itself, however, appears to be the most damning evidence: we see a man who appears to be unarmed walking to the police, and for this, he is shot nine times, more than half of the fusillade fired when Powell was falling or on the ground.
There are some exculpatory facts. Powell was in fact armed with a knife. He was trying to get the officers to shoot him. It seems clear that he was not going to stop where he was, and had he not been shot, he would have continued at the officer. Whether he would have used the knife at all, whether he would have done real harm to the officer he was approaching, is a question to which we will never know the answer.
There are objections raised:
Powell does not move like a man who poses a threat.
You mean, other than committing a crime and then coming at police officers armed with a knife?
There is no evidence that anyone felt threatened before the police arrived.
That has no relevance to the situation; the police act according to what they find, and not according to what they have not been told.
Even when he advances on police, he walks, rather than runs. He swings his arms normally, rather than entering into a fighting stance.
I do not find this a convincing argument; if a man with aggressive intent is walking towards you with a knife, and will be upon you in two or three seconds, I do not see this as being so less threatening that a defensive reaction is unwarranted. Similarly for the argument that he was not in a “fighting stance.” If a guy comes at me with a knife clearly intending to start an incident, I do not consider the fact that his hand with the knife is at his side a very comforting one.
Powell looks sick more than he looks dangerous.
What difference does that make? Is a mentally ill person armed with a knife less likely to commit an act of violence?
But the police draw their weapons as soon as they exit their car. They begin yelling at him to stop.
This is actually not surprising, as they are responding to an armed robbery and they find the suspect with his hand in his pocket.
There is no warning shot, even.
On the other hand, by the time Powell was shot, it was clear to the police that he wanted them to shoot him, and was willing to endanger them to accomplish this. I doubt that a warning shot would have done much.
All in all, I find the objections less than compelling.
There is one rather simple yet significant fact: had the police waited a few more seconds until Powell was, in fact, just a foot away and (possibly) raising the knife, then our reaction to the video would be meaningfully different. Instead of seeing an apparently unarmed man being shot from a distance of 8-10 feet, we would see a man raising a knife a few feet away from officers shouting at him to stop. Self-defense would be arguably much easier to understand. Add to that the fact that these officers probably understood very well that this man wanted them to fire and therefore would probably do whatever it took to accomplish that, and it is somewhat more understandable.
And that is where the shooting becomes, if not less objectionable, then at least less incriminating in hindsight: there is almost no doubt that Powell would have continued to close the distance. Nor do I think that it would have made much difference had Powell never raised the knife. The fact that the officers shot from 8-10 feet instead of 2-3 feet is not meaningfully significant.
Despite my initial shock and horror of seeing the video, upon considering the situation, I do not see the officers’ actions as remarkably abhorrent. Disturbing, yes; tragic, yes. However, did the police act wrongly, when it is clear that two or three seconds more time would have made no difference in the outcome, except to make the officers’ actions appear more reasonable?
Below is the video in question. It is graphic in content (not bloodiness), and shows Powell being shot to death. At the key moment, if you play the video in full-screen 1080p resolution and zoom in on what happens, it is possible to see details that might be missed if you look less closely.
But then we have the firing itself. Powell is not just shot; he is shot nine times, in three seconds.
However, it seems that this is how officers are trained, and that “muscle memory” may be an issue. Police are trained to shoot several times, not just once. When they are trained, they may not practice shooting once or twice, evaluating, and then shooting again. They are likely trained to shoot many times, and this, in a panic situation with a live assailant walking towards you, could lead to the excessive firing.
Not knowing which officer fired how many bullets could be a factor; there is something called “contagious shooting,” where a gunman will fire on the signal of another firing. It is possible that the closer officer fired the first one or two shots, and then his partner, prompted by his partner’s shooting, fires his own gun several times, providing the latter shots.
We are also misinformed by television, where we most often see the “good guy” taking extra caution to avoid killing someone. How many times have you seen a video of a cop firing a bad guy in the arm or the shoulder, so as to remove the threat without deadly force? We see this and accept it as something that could happen in real life. However, if a man is coming at you with a knife with clear intent to do damage, and you have no idea what drugs he may be on, and he could be on top of you before you have time to evaluate after a single shot or two, and you know that a shot to the arm or shoulder could miss—do you really think you would try for just one or two shots to slow him down?
It’s easy for us to watch a video taken from afar and judge; it would be extraordinarily more difficult to actually be in that officer’s situation and have to make a split-second, adrenaline-fueled, life-or-death decision.
That is not to say that there was no wrongdoing by the police. I am not sure if the officer closest to Powell was right to remain between Powell and the vehicle, giving him no room to maneuver. I am not sure if the assailant having a knife and not a gun made the situation significantly different. I do not pretend to be knowledgable about any of this, so I could be very wrong in my assessment.
That said, before knowing more, I would tend to assume that, while appearing trigger-happy and excessive in shooting, the officers involved may actually have been justified in their actions.
It hurts to say that, considering the Powell deserved medical attention, and not to be shot to death. Most likely, this is much more about our failure to treat mental illness than it is about police procedures.
Not that police procedures should not be questioned. In fact, there was an incident in Toronto last year where a younger man was also shot by police nine times as he wielded a knife—this shooting appearing far, far less justifiable.
And then, of course, there is the shooting of Michael Brown, which also seems indefensible.
I know I will probably catch a lot of flak from people who have the same political beliefs and human sensibilities as I do; the same thing happened when I tried to understand Rodney Peairs’ actions when he shot Yoshihiro Hattori to death. Nevertheless, I believe it is necessary to come to as complete an understanding as possible, and then to judge reasonably, and not just in a way that justifies your sense of moral outrage.
There is still something else that disturbs me greatly about this incident. This is from one report:
When police arrived, they said Powell walked toward them clutching his waistband. They say he then pulled out a knife and held it up in what Dotson described as an “overhand grip.”
We see this again and again: police reports, filed after the fact, differ greatly from what we later find to be the facts of the case. In this case, the police reports make it sound like Powell was in fact right on top of the officer, with the knife raised over his head, ready to strike.
The video clearly belies this account.
We saw something similar in the arrest five years ago of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a police officer whose official report was fairly clearly filled with inaccurate statements intended to justify the officer’s action.
This is what worries me as much as anything else: that police misconduct if much more common than we believe, and that much of it is covered up by police reporting which is to a great extent self-serving, and designed to the greatest extent possible to make the suspect appear guilty, and the officer completely justified. We saw this in Ferguson as well, when the police released a video intended clearly to justify the officer’s actions, despit that video having zero relevance to the misconduct in question.
But then there is the statement of the Saint Louis police chief describing the reaction to Powell’s killing. He stated that police officers have the right to defend themselves. This is true. But then he says something more:
“Officer safety is the number one issue.”
Which I find interesting. I thought public safety was the number one issue. And that may be part of the problem: the police do not see keeping the public safe as their main job—“to protect and to serve.” Instead, they appear to see it as a public management issue, with their own safety being paramount.
I do not begrudge the police the ability to defend themselves. However, when they view their safety as much more important than the safety of the public in general, that’s when things become worrisome.