Thursday, September 18, 2014

When Police Make Things Worse: The Slaying of Kajieme Powell

If someone points a gun at you and asks you to do something, you are probably going to do it. The only rational thing to do is to do whatever you can to preserve your life.

This is not what Kajieme Powell did when armed police officers approached him in St. Louis and asked him to drop the knife he was wielding. Instead, he yelled, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” The officers shot the 25-year old at least nine times, killing him.

The St. Louis police released cell phone video of the incident, believing it to exculpate their officers. (Warning: this video may be very disturbing to some viewers.) In light of recent events, they are commendably aiming for increased transparency. Many observers however, found the footage deeply troubling

For instance, the police’s account of the incident does not seem to quite match the video, and the extent of the force is clearly excessive. He is shot several times after hitting the ground. But, perhaps even worse, the footage certainly suggests that Powell might have had some form of mental illness, which should have significantly altered how the police handled the situation.

As many will point out, it is difficult to judge what someone has to do when their personal safety is threatened. Police officers put their lives on the line when carrying out their duties, and often have to make split second decisions under volatile conditions. No one should believe this job is easy, or that officers capriciously use deadly force.

But it should also be clear that what the police did here was wrong. Drawing weapons should always be a last resort, especially when an individual like Powell presents with irrational behavior.  Police are obligated to use non-violent means and maintain safety, to the best of their ability,

We know that the nearby Ferguson, Missouri is deeply troubled, and the issues that led up to Powell’s death are wide in scope. But this death is just one in a long history of police being ill-equipped and poorly trained to address the struggles posed by mental illness. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if the officers in this case had acted differently, but the officers in question did nothing to keep a bad situation from becoming a lethal one.

I don’t wish to condemn anyone, but we need a police force that is familiar with and informed about mental illness. As I wrote in June, those with mental illness are much more likely to be killed than to kill someone else.  But our cultural conceptions of mental illness encourage us to see these individuals as a dangerous element to be controlled, rather than a vulnerable population in need of help.

I won’t argue that Powell wasn’t dangerous, there’s certainly good reason to suspect he was. But raising and firing weapons on a populated street corner endangered not only Powell, but bystanders as well. Why weren’t less perilous tactics employed first? Bringing guns into the situation only raises the stakes and the anxiety levels of everyone involved, and it makes a worse outcome more likely.

I have worked with many individuals with mental illness, often managing severe aggressive and self-injurious behaviors. But when the individuals I care for enter into an aggressive or destructive episode, the last thing they need is to be threatened with force. What they need is physical protection and de-escalation strategies.

When officers approach an individual who is acting erratically and does not appear to be thinking rationally, they are likely concerned for their own safety. This is understandable, but this fear ought to be modulated with care and regard for the wellbeing of everyone involved.

Many times I have worried for my personal safety in my own line of work. A few times, I have been injured badly enough in my work to seek medical attention. But as someone working in the field of mental health, I understood these were the risks I had chosen.

Many police forces have specially designated crisis teams who are familiar with the challenges of mental illness. But since officers do not always know what they will be confronted with until they arrive on a scene, they all must understand the basic approaches demanded by these delicate situations. Learning to do this takes significant time and training, but we know how to minimize violence.

It’s true that the police have the right to defend themselves, but they are also entrusted with the paramount responsibility of keeping our communities safe. Their approach must be one which diminishes, and hopefully eliminates, violent confrontations, or they are failing to protect and serve.

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