Kajieme Powell As Rohrshach Test
The video above is Not Safe For Work; it contains profanity, and shows a man being shot dead by police.
Kajieme Powell was the mentally ill St. Louis man who committed a petty robbery at a St. Louis convenience store and waited for the police. He confronted them with a knife and asked to be shot. Suicide by cop, they call it.
The mobile phone camera video is above. It is shocking to watch, because Powell was not all that close to police when they shot him multiple times. To an outside observer, it looks like an incredible overuse of force. The man was shot dead! But I’m trying to be careful here, because I don’t know how these things work. Powell had a knife, and disobeyed multiple orders to drop it. The police had no way of knowing that he was mentally ill. Conor Friedersdorf has a balanced, nuanced analysis of the event and this video. Excerpts:
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.
But Conor tries to look at it from the other side too. You need to read the whole thing, because Conor quotes a range of community reactions in which people see the same video, and work from the same facts, and come up with strongly different reactions.
I don’t know what to think about it. Like I said, looking at it cold, it’s clear that the cops badly overreacted. But trying to think through it dispassionately, it’s a lot murkier than it seems. Is it really fair to expect cops to do a mental health exam of a man with a knife stalking around the street with people all around him, acting bizarrely, and refusing orders to drop the knife? I don’t know. If the cops had a taser, would they have had time to deliberate and get it out to use it, given how close the man was, and how irrationally he was behaving? I don’t know that either.
I do know that I am glad that it is not my job to make these kinds of calls in the heat of the moment.