Let us stipulate a few things before discussing how police officers are trained in the use of deadly force, how they react during and after the incidents and what kind of changes might be appropriate in light of recent events:
- Those who have not made a split-second decision in a situation where he thought his life or the life of someone else was in danger should be careful about making judgments.
- That said, if society gives someone the right to take a life, society deserves accountability. The idea that only a cop can judge a cop is dangerous.
- The law extends police officers considerable benefit of the doubt. The governing principle, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989, is that a cop’s action must be “objectively reasonable.” The standard for reasonable is what other reasonable cops would do.
- Rank-and-file cops are notoriously insular. They usually don’t trust the press and often they don’t trust their bosses. They rarely, if ever, will criticize a fellow officer and never to someone on the other side of the “Blue Wall.”
- That said, police officers sometimes make mistakes in judgment or in tactics. What happens then is a matter for police internal affairs officers and training officers. Sometimes it’s a matter for courts, though officers are rarely convicted.
Which brings us to the death Aug. 19 of Kajieme Powell, 25. Nine days after Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, as nightly protests were continuing, two St. Louis Police officers shot Mr. Powell to death on a sidewalk in the 8700 block of Riverview Boulevard.
The officers were responding to a 911 call from a store owner, who said Mr. Powell had shoplifted some items, and by St. Louis Alderman Dionne Flowers, who operates a beauty salon on the block. They described him as armed with a knife and acting erratically.
By sheer coincidence, the entire incident was captured on a cell phone video by a guy who happened to be bopping down the street with his camera on.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson wisely made it public the next day, but the video has made everyone an expert. The officers acted properly, some said (including Chief Dotson and some witnesses).
The officers acted precipitously, others said, firing a total of 12 shots at Mr. Powell within 15 seconds of getting out of their SUV. Some asked why the officers didn’t use non-lethal weapons, pepper spray or a Taser, or back off to try to defuse the situation without immediately resorting to gunfire.
As a young LAPD cop in 1981, David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist, shot and killed a man who was stabbing his partner. The gripping story opens his 2004 book, “Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force.”
He interviewed 80 officers from 19 police agencies in four different states who’d been involved in a total of 113 shootings. Every case was different, but in research by Mr. Klinger and others, certain patterns have emerged.
Officers frequently reported that their senses played tricks on them. Often they reported that time slowed down, but some said time sped up. Some said that they didn’t hear their gunshots. Some experienced “tunnel vision” — seeing nothing but the threat in front of them.
Then there was a SWAT officer who calmly clicked through a mental checklist and waited until he saw the suspect start to sling his AR-15 rifle into position to fire and put his finger in the trigger well. Only then did the officer fire, but afterward had no accurate recollection of how many rounds he’d fired.
In short, even when you’re there, even when you’re clicking through a mental checklist, memory can play tricks. Psychologists long have known that most people under great stress often do not analyze information in a calm, rational manner. They revert to experiential thinking, which is fast and efficient, but may not reflect accurate recall.
At the St. Louis Police Academy, Sgt. Blake Tucker is the chief defensive tactics instructor. He is familiar with sensory distortions like tunnel vision and auditory occlusion.
He says that training can help. Police cadets get 90 to 100 hours of it on use of force and 120 hours of firearms training. Commissioned officers must requalify on firearms twice a year. They come in three times a year for extra use-of-force training.
They get techniques like “tactical breathing,” the idea being to keep your heartbeat slow enough that your hands don’t shake. They’re taught “verbal judo,” how to deflect verbal aggression. They are drilled on the law.
They are taught to use the minimum force necessary to control the situation, but are warned that things happen quickly. When other options fail, they may use deadly force.
“We try to assemble the pieces the best we can, but human emotion comes into it,” Sgt. Tucker said. “We train and we train and we train.”
The mind, however, knows that a simulation is just that, pixels on a movie-screen display of a computer program called “Lasershot.” A simulation doesn’t make your heart pound.
Three months of riding patrol with a field training officer takes the rookie officer a little further, especially in the city, where cops get exposed to a lot of things fast. But it’s completely different when lives, including yours, are on the line.
Cadets are physically attacked by instructors who are teaching them to protect their weapons. They are taught to be totally aware of the situations they find themselves in, including who might have a weapon, what is their physical size relative to that of the suspect, who else is in the line of fire, how to find concealment and cover, reactionary distances for different weapons.
For a guy with a gun, the reactionary distance is right now. Since a groundbreaking study in 1983, the standard reaction distance for a guy with an “edged-weapon” has been 21 feet.
Some experts question whether that’s far enough, but St. Louis teaches 21 feet. A physically fit individual with a knife can close 21 feet before an officer can get his gun out. This explains why the officers who shot Kajieme Powell pulled their weapons as they emerged from their SUV.
Both officers had Tasers, which isn’t always the case. Why didn’t they use them? He was moving pretty fast and saying, “Shoot me.” Why didn’t the officers back up and try to talk to him? Why didn’t they separate and try to flank Mr. Powell?
Those could be questions of experience or tactics. The officers who shot Kajieme Powell each had less than three years on the street. They saw the knife. They saw him change direction and head toward them.
They shot, as they were trained, to incapacitate him, which means shooting for the center of his mass, the biggest target available. All sorts of vital organs are at center mass, including the heart.
They chose an objectively reasonable course that other reasonable cops might have chosen. According to current training, protocol and state law, this appears to be, as cops say, a “righteous shoot.”
But that doesn’t mean the two officers made the best choice. Cops don’t like to question other cops’ actions, but it is difficult for a lay person to see the video of that shooting and not come away thinking there was a reasonable option short of lethal force that would have disarmed Kajieme Powell.
At some point, probably soon, the tactics used that afternoon on Riverview Boulevard will become part of a training course. That includes the use of video.
“I tell guys to get used to the idea that in four or five years, we’ll all be wearing cameras,” Sgt. Tucker said. “I think it will help us.”
A camera helped on Riverview Boulevard. It could have answered questions on Canfield Drive in Ferguson. Let’s not wait four or five years.
Let’s pass some ordinances to keep cops and the public safe. Even if it takes a tax increase, let’s get cameras on every cop in the St. Louis region.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.