St. Louis, Mo., is facing more questions about the death of black men at the hands of police weaponry after the emergence of a video on Wednesday showing two policemen shooting a knife-wielding black man just miles from where teenager Michael Brown was gunned down 10 days before.
The graphic video is arresting because it shows the speed at which deadly force can be applied: Within moments of two policemen pulling up and pulling their guns as they exit their vehicles, a barrage of gunfire rings out and Kajieme Powell slumps to the ground.
Stunned witnesses, including the narrator of the video, express shock, with one calling out, “Hands up” – one rallying cry of the violence-laced protests that have rocked St. Louis since Brown was killed on Aug. 9 by a white police officer. Dueling narratives of that fatal incident have Brown raising his hands before he’s shot; and, in another account, Brown bumrushing an injured police officer as shots ring out.
Similar to the Brown shooting, a convenience store clerk called police after Mr. Powell, who was in his mid-20s, stole two beverages and walked out the door. With the man acting erratically, a witness began videotaping with his cell phone. Whoever called the cops said Mr. Powell had a knife, and as a cruiser pulled up Powell wielded it and approached the police officers, shouting, “Shoot me! Shoot me!”
Despite the bid for transparency, there are obvious inconsistencies between the video and the police account. A police report said Powell approached within three to four feet, with the knife in a overhand motion – in other words, approach with attack. The video, which is taken from behind as Powell approaches the police, shows Powell with his hands by his side, and more then four feet away.
The video portrays an intense view into police use of deadly force at a tense time, says Clarissa Hayward, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. Most critically, she says, is it shows how police ratcheted force up very quickly, as the dynamics of the encounter with Powell developed. “It seems like they could have had other options,” she says.
But officers ruled out tasers because they’re too unreliable in a close threat situation, especially when the subject is wearing a jacket, as Powell was, that could keep the taser darts from penetrating skin, Police Chief Sam Dotson told reporters.
Also, officers receive training in knife attacks that suggest a knife-wielder can close and kill an officer with a gun far faster than most people expect, the so-called “Tueller Drill.” Whether the officers could have retreated and let the situation play out some more before shooting Powell is another question.
The narrators and bystanders’ comments are riveting. At one point, after at least nine shots are fired by both officers, a witness calls out, “Hands up,” a direct reference to the Brown protests that have begun to tail off after Gov. Jay Nixon (D) called in the National Guard. As the officers apparently handcuff Powell, the narrator says: “They just killed him. Oh, here we go again, they just killed this man. He’s dead. They’re putting him in cuffs. They just killed this man. He didn’t have a gun on him. Now they’re cuffing him.”
The man who videotaped the shooting contacted an attorney afterwards, and the attorney passed the tape along to police. Police also released two 911 calls and video from inside the convenience store that shows Powell taking the sodas without paying.
The quick release of information by the police was a direct attempt to try to easy passions in a city rocked by violence after police in Ferguson followed up with the Brown shooting by bringing dogs and tear gas to a protest – a move that some have said incited more violence.
Police Chief Dotson nearly immediately addressed the shooting with bystanders and reporters at the scene, and vowed transparency – a not-so-veiled acknowledgement of the secrecy that has fueled the protests in nearby Ferguson, Mo., where Brown was killed.
“These officers felt they were in a lethal situation, that their lives were in jeopardy, and I think we have to remember that police officers have a right at the end of the day to go home,” he said.