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, “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.