Kajieme Powell told the St. Louis police to shoot him. He told them repeatedly to shoot him, and the two police officers who were called to the scene quickly obliged. But they didn’t shoot him because he told them to. The official reason St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson gave for why the officers shot Powell—which they did at least nine times, including several shots fired after Powell had already fallen to the ground—was that Powell was carrying a knife and charged toward the two officers holding that knife with an overhand grip.
Cellphone video captured by a witness standing nearby throws this official account of events into question, including the overhand grip, whether Powell “charged” at the officers and even the distance Powell was from the officers. But what does seem clear is that Powell was not well. In the video, he paces back and forth outside the store speaking incoherently, the two stolen energy drinks sitting on the sidewalk. The first thing he says that makes any sense is when the police arrive and he yells, “Shoot me!” The police do nothing to de-escalate the situation, hopping out of their car with guns drawn. Perhaps this is protocol, but at no point, after recognizing that Powell is only holding a knife and is not threatening the lives of anyone around him, do they attempt any non-lethal means of subduing him. They do not recognize his barking “Shoot me! Kill me now!” as suicidal. They ended the ordeal, and Powell’s life, without much consideration of any alternatives.
But this is to be expected when far too many police officers aren’t being trained to handle suspects with mental illness, but are increasingly called to do so. As mental-health services disappear across the country, it is the police departments, the court system and the prisons that, more and more, are charged with care for those with mental illnesses. But that care often takes the form of what happened in St. Louis to Powell, or of incarceration without treatment.
This is true for a number of social problems that America would rather not deal with. It’s a system that’s not only unsustainable, financially and morally, but does little to ameliorate these issues. Fortunately, there are alternatives, and in the absence of any national policy shift, America’s cities have been on the front lines of implementing new and better programs that get people the help they need without sending them through the criminal justice system. Still, more can be done.