Just days after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown that rocked the nation, another young black man was shot dead by police in broad daylight — miles away from Michael Brown’s home of Ferguson, Missouri. This man had a weapon of sorts. Kajieme Powell was reportedly carrying a knife — seemingly no larger than a steak knife — when police shot him down.
We learned later that a bystander had videotaped the entire incident on his cell phone — from before the cop car pulled up to the scene, until Powell lay motionless on the ground as officers cuffed him. The video has put on full, unadulterated display what it looks like for cops to shoot a man down just seconds after arriving on the scene, without trying any other mitigating measures first. And many have expressed the sentiment that it just doesn’t look right.
But from a legal and officer training perspective, the shooting was likely in line with U.S. police practice.
On the legal question, Cornell law professor Jens David Ohlin noted that whether or not the shooting was justified is for a jury to decide. But, “If indeed he was holding a knife in his hands, a jury might very well conclude that the officer believed that he faced an imminent threat of grave bodily injury” — the standard for deadly force. “Moreover,” he added, “the jury might conclude that this believe was objectively reasonable given the facts of the situation.”
What about from a policy perspective? David Long is a former Department of Labor special agent who conducted firearms trainings for other agents, and now a criminal justice professor at Brandman University. He has been critical of many instances in which police have fired deadly shots when they would have used nonlethal force. As he put it, “I don’t find myself siding with the police very often” in deadly force situations. He has also been an outspoken critic of militarized police tactics that coincided with the War on Drugs. But in this instance, he said, even he likely might have done the same if he had been in the officers’ shoes.
I watched the video about ten times and I have to say I hate the idea of another young black man being shot down by police in the street but that actually looked like a good shooting to me. The young man had a knife. The thing about knives is that somebody with a knife is potentially more dangerous to you than somebody with a gun because somebody with a knife can be on you so fast so I was trained to be especially more vigilant with somebody with a knife.
For more context on police officer training for those wielding a knife, this video highlighted by Conor Friedersdorf is instructive. “At first glance this officer’s distance from the suspect looks safe enough. But a suspect can easily cover this distance faster than most officers can draw their guns,” the video begins. The video suggests that when a suspect with a knife is five feet or less from an officer, the officer may no longer even have time to draw a gun, and that at 15 feet the officer may have a shot at shooting a suspect before they reach an officer with a knife. “Tests with hundreds of officers reveal that in most cases, a minimum reactionary gap of 21 feet is required to react and deliver at least two rounds and to have enough time to move out of the attacker’s path.”
It looked like the officers did almost everything right. They gave him commands. He was not complying. He got up on the little step and then started toward one of the officers and that’s when they shot. And if it was in fact a knife .. then all of my training and all of my background tells me that is a justifiable police shooting against it looks like a mentally ill young man.
What of the mental illness component? Should cops react differently? A study by the Portland Press Herald in Maine found that nearly half of people shot by police since 2000 were mentally ill, and that police lack proper training on defusing deadly conflicts. In fact, the typical commands Long refers to can actually have an adverse impact on those with mental illness. Some federal appeals court cases have even suggested that mental illness should be among the factors cops consider when deciding how and when to employ force.
Among the recommendations of a 2012 report to police chiefs on the use of force against those with mental illness or addiction problems are “slowing down the situation” by getting a supervisor to the scene, and identifying “chronic consumers” of police services. These tactics are under-employed in many police interventions, including several other fatal shootings in which family members called the police for help.
But even when mental illness comes into play, officers retain the same discretion to protect the safety of themselves and others with lethal force. So it may be that assessments of mental illness would have to come into play even earlier in police interventions, or even dictate against police intervention to begin with.
“In general it would be wonderful if police training included some type of mental health component,” Long said. “So many people out there that police deal with are in fact mentally ill. But unless somebody is in immediate danger of being lethally assaulted by a mentally ill person I’m sorry to say I would not call the police. Because the police generally aren’t sensitive to that.”
Particularly when an individual described as a suspect is “coming at you with a knife and not being compliant” the last thing officers are thinking about is “whether the person’s mentally ill or not,” he said.
Long conceded that there might have been things the officers could have done to alter their contact from the get-go had they been warned that the suspect exhibited signs of a possible mental illness or emotional disturbance. Had they been able to arrive in a police cruiser, they could have positioned themselves behind the police cruiser so that they could have talked to him while maintaining better protection from Powell and his knife.
What of less-lethal tools like tasers, pepper spray, or bean bag rounds? In many instances, those are important alternatives for subduing a suspect that Long believes are under-used. But when a suspect is close enough to lunge at you, Long said even Tasers are not surefire enough, nor quick enough, to ensure that the suspect won’t impose damage first.
“If this poor young man, if he had been 30 feet or 20 feet, 20 feet from the officers and they shot him 20 feet away, I’m gonna say bad shoot,” he said. But once a suspect gets 10 feet or closer and is running toward you, officers start to run out of options in his estimation.
Of course, Long has been trained in American police tactics. And it may be that some larger policy shift could overhaul whether police get out of a car to begin with when the reported crime is stealing a few sodas from a store, or that better treatment options for the mentally ill would decrease the likelihood of police confrontations like this one.
Even Long, who said he might have resorted to a similar tactic if he had been in these officers’ shoes, described having similar reaction to much of America when he watched the video.
“It did unfold extremely quickly as those situations often do,” he said. “And watching it just broke my heart.”