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Stop! Freeze!

November 28, 2014

“Oh my God, they just killed this man… they could have tazed or shot him in the leg, they shot him repeatedly.” Michael Davis, St. Louis Police Release Graphic Video of Shooting of Kajieme Powell near Ferguson, Mo., Youtube (Oct. 27, 2014).

Two weeks and four miles away from the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two St. Louis police officers were recorded responding to the scene of a crime. The video shows that roughly 30-seconds after arriving on the scene, Kajieme Powell was dead, after 12 bullets were emptied into the unarmed man’s body. The brazen shooting of Kajieme Powell sheds an unflinching and troubling light on Michael Brown’s killing, and what is a well-documented history of excessive and/or deadly force used by police against unarmed suspects of minor crimes. In 1994 the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology conducted an extensive study on the issue, and found that one-third of all citizen-police contacts in the U.S. where force was used, can be classified as excessive. The most common factor attributed to this abuse of power was disrespect shown to the police officers by suspects.

The Powell shooting offers an unedited, start to finish glimpse of police using deadly force. Unfortunately, the facts are not so kind to the St. Louis police officers responsible for the death of the 25-year old. Powell is shown yelling, “Shoot me! Shoot me now [expletive]!” before defiantly stepping over a small ledge and walking in a semi-circular path, in an effort to create more distance between himself and the police.

Seconds later each officer fires six shots into the body of Powell. One officer flips the man over, while the other officer stands over Powell’s lifeless body, weapon drawn and aimed.These are the facts of the case. Yet still, the St. Louis Police Department’s statement before they knew of the video, is either a straightforward lie or troubling evidence of police incompetence and or lack of training. In the press conference immediately following the killing of Powell, the police reported that, “…he tossed em’[energy drinks] into the street…approached the officers while clutching a knife in an overhand grip… when the officers exited the vehicle, they did not have their guns drawn…he came within 3-4 feet of the officers…both officers fired their weapons, and the suspect was deceased.”

As law students were are trained to look at the facts of a given situation, and objectively apply legal reasoning to those facts to draw a conclusion. Here, the issue becomes whether the gun- wielding police officers used reasonable or excessive force when they shot Powell 12 times. Determining the reasonableness of the officer’s conduct is central to establishing the officer’s liability. In its 1994 study, the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology cited the lack of clarity with the reasonable person standard as a threshold question, which must be answered before conducting further analysis. “One of the obvious problems created by a reasonableness standard is determining the appropriate level of reasonableness…Police officers may justifiably escalate the use of force against a suspect…concluding, if necessary, with the use of deadly force —in direct relation to the reason that they must apprehend that suspect.”

ItmaybethatIamnewtothestudyof law, in which case please pardon my ignorance; but courts have generally not pardoned the use of deadly force when it is in direct relation to non- deadly (or non-existent) threats. The most popular defense alleged by the shooters in Powell, Brown, and even Treyvon Martin, is that they acted in good faith because they were in fear for their lives. In a case directly relevant to both Missouri shootings, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Kansas ruled that in instances where the force used by police is already determined to be unreasonable, a “good faith” defense is insufficient to avoid liability, and stated that no officer could reasonably believe that use of unreasonable force did not violate clearly established law. Whether or not Powell had a knife, it is clear he was not threatening the officers with any force whatsoever (or even using his clenched fist to create the appearance of a knife), nor could his proximity to the officers show that he had an apparent ability to effectuate harm, with fist or knife.

Coming full-circle to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the similarities between to the two shootings are troublingly similar. By comparing Powell’s shooting to Brown’s, the gaps left by the scant amount of solid eye-witness evidence in the latter case are filled in by the solid evidence in the former. Even if the officers responded to Brown shop- lifting, that Brown was in the middle of the street, or that his fists were balled up at his side, it would not amount to the objective fear officers would need to feel in order to warrant the use of this type of deadly force. None of these instances, if proven true, justify three deadly shots to Brown’s head after he walked away from the officer. Consequently, my humble fact-based opinion is that both Powell and Brown should not have been killed, and it was more likely a circumstances warranting arrest. It also leaves the country wondering why the officers involved in both shootings are not being investigated for murder.

Officers should be forced to stand accountable for their actions, despite the dangerousness of their jobs, because they are stewards of public safety and must uphold the great responsibility of that privilege. Due to the split-nature of court opinions regarding this matter, and increased attention and outrage as of late, it is likely that the number of deaths, like Powell’s and Brown’s, will only increase without sweeping reform for a more centralized set of standards concerning police conduct. Sadly though, if precedent is any indication, it may take another 35 years or another shooting of an unarmed suspect to effectuate that change.