Aug 22 3:56 PM

Shoplifting in St. Louis? What was Kajieme Powell thinking?

A screen capture from video released Aug. 21 by the St. Louis Police of officers shooting and killing Kajieme Powell.
St. Louis Police

With the St. Louis police shooting and killing of 25-year-old Kajieme Powell coming, as it did, amidst continued focus on the death of teenager Michael Brown at the hands of police in nearby Ferguson, Mo., the country is given the uncomfortable “opportunity” to examine a situation that unfortunately happens all-too-frequently and — also unfortunately — rarely makes the top of a national news page.

Powell was shot Tuesday after police responded to a report of shoplifting. Witnesses have said that Powell left the store after refusing to pay for soft drinks and doughnuts. One 911 caller said he was acting erratically, others have said he was “grabbing his waistband.” When two officers from the St. Louis city police (a different department than the St. Louis County police that came under criticism for its heavy-handed approach to demonstrations in Ferguson and has a documented history of racial profiling) pulled up in a squad car and got out, guns drawn, Powell yells at them, “Shoot me now. Kill me now.”

In less than 30 seconds, the two responding officers start shooting at Powell (six shots each, according to reports), killing him.

The original police account of this incident said that Powell had a knife and that, before he was shot, he came at the officers with the knife raised in an "overhand grip.”

What kind of knife, and even whether Powell had one, is now a topic of some discussion (some later reports are saying it looked like he had a steak knife). Whether Powell came at police with the knife raised above his head is not — he didn’t.

The reason there is now a high degree of clarity on that final point is because, on Thursday, there emerged amateur video of the incident. The St. Louis PD has now officially released the camera-phone recording as part of what they say is an effort to be completely “transparent” about this shooting.

That, in itself, has to be seen through the high-definition optics of current events.

Much was made in the first hours after the killing of Powell about how St. Louis police and city officials had behaved in a manner that diffused the situation, holding the actions of the police chief and a city alderman in sharp contrast to the police response a few miles away in Ferguson. Both St. Louis city officials waded into the crowd that quickly gathered after the shooting, answering questions and pledging a full investigation.

Most of the national media grabbed hold of the contrast, buttressed as it was by the reports that Powell was a) committing a crime, b) wielding a knife and behaving in a threatening manner, and c) was said by neighbors to be suffering from some sort of mental illness.

But is this as easy a contrast as it appears? Is the shooting of Kajieme Powell, in the end, an unfortunate result of a chaotic situation — or even if it is something much more suspect and much less excusable, is it part of a narrative that lives independently of Brown’s death in Ferguson?

There are several discussions of the tactics (or lack thereof) employed by the responding officers. They pull up too close to Powell, exit the car with guns drawn, immediately start yelling orders, and shoot to neutralize the target (as the lingo goes) very quickly. Further, there is a tragic litany of police interactions with the mentally ill going very badly. It appears from the video the responding officers did little to defuse the situation with Powell, and it appears they would have had time to do so if they had positioned themselves better (there were no bystanders near Powell at the time police arrived).

There are also conversations about how differently this incident and the recording of it might be perceived by Americans with dissimilar racial backgrounds (like this one from Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic), how police in other countries, such as Great Britain, would have responded in another way, and there are many comments around the web asking why police don’t fire warning shots or use tasers in these circumstances.

Those are discussions worth having — even if some of them don’t have clear conclusions — but there seems another angle that has yet to be discussed.

Look at Powell’s death in a slightly different way and in a slightly different context.

Almost a week ago now, on Friday, August 15, Ferguson awoke after a night of almost celebratory calm that followed the move to shift command of crowd control from the St. Louis County police to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. On that morning, Ferguson’s chief of police had called a press “conference” (it was more a briefing, as no questions were taken), ostensibly to release the name of the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.

The chief did that, revealing the shooter to be six-year veteran Darrell Wilson. But along with the name, the Ferguson police released 19 pages of incident reports — not on the shooting (none of the pages referred to shooting), but on the alleged “strong-arm robbery” of a convenience store (a strong-arm robbery is one where no weapon is used, but there is some use of force). The police also released surveillance footage of a man they said was Michael Brown pushing a shopkeeper out of the way as Brown, so we are told, took some cigars (or was it cigarillos?) without paying.

No incident report on the shooting of Brown was released (we now know this is because there was no report filed until Tuesday, August 19 — and even that is essentially a blank document). But the implication was clear — Brown was a suspect in this “robbery” (in many other places, the crime would more typically be called “shoplifting”) and, therefore, the police had some cause to use lethal force when they encountered him later that day.

Ferguson’s police chief was forced to admit later that Friday that Wilson did not know Brown was identified as a suspect in the earlier crime — the only thing that provoked the interaction according to witnesses and the unofficial police account (because, again, there is no official one) is that Brown and a friend were walking in the middle of the street — but then the chief tried again to muddy the waters, saying that Wilson had seen cigars in Brown’s possession. Whether he saw them before or after he approached Brown, or whether it was only after Wilson had killed Brown, was never explained.

Some in the media questioned just what the Ferguson police were trying to do, especially after the previous night had been relatively calm, but the reaction in the community was immediate and intense. Police seemed to be saying Michael Brown was not a nice kid, but an aggressive young man (and a black man, at that) involved in a robbery, and so he deserved what he got.

Friday night saw angrier demonstrators, along with some vandalism and looting, and the anger carried over through the weekend and into the next week.

Cut to: Kajieme Powell.

Maybe Powell was mentally disturbed and acting erratically, sure, but what if the scene was described this way:

After hearing the police make the case that they can justify shooting shoplifters, and after days of militarized police response to largely peaceful demonstrations, Powell decided he’d had enough. The young black man walks into a convenience store, shoplifts a few dollars worth of junk food, walks out to the street, puts the items down on the sidewalk and gets a little loud, as if to say, “There, I just shoplifted, now what’re you going to do? Shoot me?”

The police respond to the call about the theft and confront Powell, guns cocked and aimed.

“Shoot me now. Kill me now,” says Powell.

Again, it might be that all Powell had was his anger and a need for doughnuts and soda, but what if it was something more? No one will get to ask Powell what was going through his head — the St. Louis Police and their questionable tactics made sure of that. But if Powell could speak, would he have something to say?

Or did he say it all already?

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