“Barking Orders At A Person With Serious Mental Illness Doesn’t Work”

Let’s move a few miles away from Ferguson to the city of St. Louis.

On Tuesday I listened to St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson describe the shooting of yet another young black man, Kajieme Powell, who was killed that afternoon by St. Louis police, after he refused to put down a knife as he moved toward officers.

Those officers were responding to a call made by a store owner, who said Powell had stolen some energy drinks and pastries and was behaving strangely. Powell was, Chief Dotson said, chief dotson and overhand grip“acting erratically, walking back and forth, up and down the street” while talking to himself. When officers arrived, Dotson said they exited their vehicles without initially drawing their weapons. He also said that Powell did not respond to“verbal commands to drop his weapon” and walked toward the officers, yelling, “Shoot me now! Kill me now!”  And, most important, according to Dotson’s version of what happened, the officers shot Powell because he had “closed within three to four feet with the knife in what is described as an ‘overhand grip.'”

At the time, the explanation seemed reasonable to me. It seemed the shooting was justifiable. Claiming the man was only three or four feet away with a knife menacingly raised in the air seemed to leave the officers little choice. It seemed like a case in which a disturbed young man—neighbors later said he was mentally ill—had threatened the lives of two policemen and they responded with life-taking and life-saving force. But that was the picture the policemen painted of the scene, which often is the only view we get in matters like these.

But not this time.

As you probably already know, someone had a video camera and captured the shooting. And that video shows that what Chief Dotson said wasn’t entirely accurate. And where it wasn’t accurate, it happens to skew in favor of the shooters, the cops. In case you haven’t seen it and want to, here is the video of the killing (be warned, it is graphic):

As you can see, the officers got out of their vehicles with their guns drawn, contrary to what Chief Dotson claimed. And as you can see, Powell did not have the knife up in an “overhand grip.” Nor was he within three or four feet of the officers. And something Chief Dotson did not explain at his press conference on Tuesday was why the officers, between both of them, fired nine shots into Powell, at least two of them after he was down on the ground and clearly not a threat. Those last two shots are perhaps the most disturbing thing, among many things, about the video. Those last two shots certainly seemed gratuitous and seemed like one or both of the officers were in some kind of adrenaline-fueled shoot mode that they could not easily turn off.

The police union told St. Louis Public Radio that the video, which was released by the police chief with the union’s consent, was “exculpatory.” I suppose that is in the eye of the beholder. What I see when I see that video is a disturbed young man, who those around him find mildly amusing. The fact that he has a knife, of course, makes him a dangerous and disturbed young man. But all over this country, each and every day, police confront dangerous and disturbed people. And at least some of the time, perhaps much of the time, things don’t end up like they did in St. Louis. Why is that? Why did these two officers respond the way they did? Why did they get out of their patrol car with weapons drawn? Where were their Tasars? And why have most people in law enforcement, perhaps some who would not have responded as those two St. Louis cops did, defended what happened on that St. Louis street on a Tuesday afternoon?

I suppose it all comes down to perception. And cops seem to have a different way of looking at their jobs than those of us who have never been in the position of a gun-toting authority. But surely it is not unreasonable to expect more out of the police than what they gave us in St. Louis. Surely it is not unreasonable to expect a little more patience from them, at least a little more than 15 or 20 seconds, when dealing with what they had to know was a disturbed man—who else yells at guns-drawn policemen, “Shoot me! Shoot me! Shoot me! Shoot me now, motherfucker!”?

Policemen wear uniforms for a reason. Those uniforms show that they are in a special category of people, people who have the authority to kill in the name of not only the law, but in the name of all of us. When they draw their weapons and aim them, much less shoot, we have every right to expect that they do so only when necessary. We have every right, as citizens, to hold our police to high standards of conduct.

But cops are only as good as the training they receive. Here what Salon’s Joanna Rothkof has to say:

The stigmatization and lack of information surrounding mental illness directly affects the criminal justice system, resulting in inadequate treatment, inappropriate prison time and numerous deaths at the hands of police. Prisons are home to 10 times more mentally ill Americans than state psychiatric hospitals. The Los Angeles County Jail is the largest provider of mental healthcare in the country. Appallingly, 50 percent of Americans killed by the police every year are mentally ill, and this largely has to do with police training.

That is shocking. If police aren’t receiving adequate training related to dealing with the mentally ill, then it seems unfair to blame them when they pull up to a situation, like in St. Louis, and demand compliance from someone who simply can’t comply in the same way you or I could. Rothkof quotes a report (“How lack of police training can be deadly for the mentally ill“) by Aaron Ernst and Christof Putzel:

“Traditional law enforcement tactics are rooted in logic, in reasoning – and in issuing commands for someone to comply so that we can make the situation safe right now by taking a person into custody,” said Douglas County Police Capt. Attila Denes, who has spent much of his career in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado trying to improve police interaction with the mentally ill. “But barking orders at a person with serious mental illness doesn’t work.”

Of course it doesn’t work. But it goes on every day. And, in the end, if we the people allow it to go on, if we don’t insist that our police officers get the training they most desperately need and then hold them to a high standard of conduct, we will continue to see cops killing mentally ill people and then having to defend themselves against the perception that something else could have, should have, been done.



  1. Yours is a fair assessment of the situation, Duane. Mental illness and its lack of treatment in this country is a disgrace, as I have posted often on my own and other blogs. It is behind not only incidents like this one, but also behind the VA scheduling scandal. The sad truth is that medical science has neglected the problem, largely because our system is money-based and there’s little money in treating the mentally ill. Treatment is time-consuming and has uncertain outcomes.

    Your question about Tasers is appropriate. I wonder if the St. Louis police even have them, but if they don’t, they should. Other weapons have been invented as well, including one that shoots nets to entangle assailants. If police forces can get MRAP’s, AR-15’s and night-vision goggles, one would think Tasers and the like would be a snap to get. The second most-useful equipment would be individual video cameras for each policeman, on their hats, shoulders or glasses. Anyone who is tempted to use deadly force is going to think twice if he knows his actions and words are being recorded.

    The largest collection of crazy people in this country is in the Los Angeles county jail. At any given time it holds about 3,900 people and more than half of the inmates fit the definition. I heard this on an NPR pod-cast.


    • kabe

       /  August 21, 2014

      Jim and Duane, I have read one report that a woman called 911 and reported that the man had a knife, which further raises the question as to why a Taser was not used. It seems minimum force was never an option for these officers. This shooting is much more ” protest worthy” than the Ferguson incident.

      Police officers are trained under duress in many different ways and are trained with video as to shoot or not to shoot. What gets me is why they are never aiming for the lower body? They are trained over and over and are all qualified marksman. Is asking for a little restraint really unreasonable here? Why is it always Lethal force? I would like to see where the bullet pattern is on this man’s body.



      • @Kabe,

        Good points. Also, I heard on Rachel Maddow show last night that the St. Louis cops are equipped with Tasers!


      • Kabe,

        The woman you mentioned was a city alderman. She apparently did tell them (I think it was in the police report itself) that he had one knife in his hand and another in his pocket (even though apparently he had only the one steak knife). You make a good point about “minimum force was never an option for these officers.” That sure seems like what that video shows, and if it weren’t for that video we would never know how much the story had been skewed in favor of the shooters. It would simply go down as another case of a man with a knife “attacking” officers and they had to shoot to protect themselves. It appears much more complicated than that now.

        As for the Ferguson case, I think we still don’t know whether that one is more “protest worthy” or not. So much false and misleading information is out there, until a thorough, objective, investigation is done we just don’t know how egregious that shooting was. Unfortunately, there is no video available to contradict or support the shooter’s contentions. We do have a video, though, showing there was very little respect paid to the young man’s body, as he lay in the street for what some have said was four hours or more.



    • Jim,

      It seems to me that a big part of why there is little money in medical science taking on mental illness is because insurance companies, at least in my experience, don’t pay enough for it. They seem to treat mental illness like it is a quasi-medical problem.

      As for the Tasers, the chief said that these officers did have Tasers, but then explained that because they aren’t 100% effective that they weren’t necessarily called for. I didn’t think he sounded credible on that point.

      And I suspect the reason why so many mentally ill people are in our jails and prisons and on our streets is because of policies years ago, maybe by well-intentioned people, that sought to de-institutionalize and perhaps de-stigmatize them. It turns out that we just traded one institution where they could get treatment for another institution where the treatment is inadequate or lacking.

      Sad, is what it is, because there seems to be no help in sight.



      • It seems to me that a big part of why there is little money in medical science taking on mental illness is because insurance companies, at least in my experience, don’t pay enough for it. They seem to treat mental illness like it is a quasi-medical problem.

        The heart of the problem, I submit, is why insurance companies shun coverage of mental illness. That treatment is uncertain and outcomes problematical makes it expensive. That raises the cost of insurance and nobody, not individuals and not businesses, want to pay that additional cost, especially when nobody wants to think they will ever need such coverage.

        Kind of like earthquake insurance, I suppose. So, when selecting coverage by two competing insurance companies, the cheaper one without coverage for mental illness is going to prevail. And then, going down to the root of it, people with mental illness are likely to be the least able to afford coverage – that’s the root of it.


      • kabe

         /  August 23, 2014

        Duane, I was not aware that that they even had a Taser. As AB states below, it is easy for us to second guess here. But, if you have 2 officers and one strange acting man with a knife, why not chill out for a moment. Have a bit of a plan, one with taser, one with a gun at the ready. Why not try to talk to the guy first instead of yelling and pointing guns? I am sure these officers are trained as to ID someone wanting to be shot. This just happened too fast for me. The man was at enough distance before going directly to yelling and pointing guns in my opinion. When I am confronted with an angry person, which happens quite frequently in Joplin as Duane can attest, I ask questions. I try to put the onus of the situation back at the person. It is not hard and I do not get to carry a gun. Verbal Judo does work, and believe me, I would much rather punch some of these people right square in the face! lol



  2. ansonburlingame

     /  August 22, 2014

    Jim, Kabe and Duane,

    I join with all of you in considering this particular shooting as yet another example of how medical science has thus far failed to find ways to effectively treat mental illness. As well, when one is mentally ill our social structure resists hospitalization (confinement of a sort) as a form of treatment. When I was rather young I observed, first hand, how a state mental institution was operated and the condition of people therein. No one would want to put a relative in such an institution, any time. So we shut them down by and large and leave such people on the streets to fend for themselves, or put them in jail. There is little between those two options unless one is very rich and can afford high priced “rehab or treatment facilities”. Remember, a “crazy drunk with a knife” is menatlly ill most of the time and has shown a pattern of such behavior over time as well, most of the time.

    Of course all of us can second guess how supposedly trained officers react in such situations. Why not use a taser, why not shoot the man “in the leg, etc.” Other devices, nets, etc. come to mind as well, particularly in broad daylight and on a street that does not appear to be “dangerous” in any way. However, in the end, I wonder how you train anyone to effectively handle a “crazy man wielding a knife in public”. Certainly if I was confronted with such, just like some of the men (civilians) seen in the video, I would back off, maybe even run, and “let the police handle it”.

    Bill O’Reilly, several nights ago in reaction to Rev. Starkton and Ferguson, had some FBI statistics that he bandied around. About 12 Million arrests in a year, nationwide, with some 400 deaths (I let the reader figure the percentage) before or during the arrest because of police use of force. And of course the percentage of those 400 deaths caused by unlawful or “inappropriate” use of force by police was a very small percentage of those 400 that died at the hands of the police. But such statistics mean nothing to a single dead person or their families and friends, as well.

    Bottom line to me at least is we need to completely rethink how we deal with mental illnesses in America today. As for better training for ALL police officers, well we know how to do that for sure. Really well trained police can by themselves “take down” (but not kill) a knife wielding person of any size, a “SEAL trained” law enforcement officer for example. But to have to put ALL police officers through such training, no way. Recall the drop out rate for such training usually exceeds 80% of those beginning such training.

    It would seem that preventing a “normally trained” police officer, someone that is NOT a prime physical and mental specimen able to handle himself (not herself) in a real fight, one on one in a “James Bond” fashion, is simply not achievable in terms of mass training. So why even give such “normal police” a gun becomes a question. Everytime such a situation (a “crazy man with a …..) comes up, don’t call just police, call SWAT, maybe. No city could deal financially with such a setup, I suspect and more and more “crazy people with a …..” would be left out there, acting “crazy”, until we figure out how to better deal with mental health issues before they become violent issues.

    I believe the onous of that burden should be put at the feet of medical science, not law enforcement as a matter of priority and public outrage. Picket the offices of psychiatrists if you will, and force THEM to deal with “crazy people” effectively and safely for the general public. My guess is the “doctor” treating the young man in CT before he “went crazy” (he had been crazy for a long time it seems and his mother knew it), is still practicing medicine, for example. Should she (or he)?



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