After Two Police Shootings, Questions Emerge About Use Of Force

Sep 26, 2014

The shooting deaths of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson and 25-year-old Kajieme Powell in St. Louis have focused a bright spotlight on the authority that police officers have to use force – sometimes deadly – to keep themselves and others safe.

Fatal use of force encounters are rare. But the questions raised when they happen reflect society’s broader struggles.

Early on the evening of Aug. 1, Roelif Carter and his wife started arguing about something stupid, like married couples do. The argument attracted the attention of neighbors, who called the Ferguson police. Officers tried to stop Carter less than a mile from his house.

“We couldn’t get to an agreement, so I parked the car, we broke company, and I got on my bike,” Carter said.

The police report says Carter was drunk, uncooperative and aggressive, which he denies. They eventually hit him with  a Taser; he was charged with resisting arrest and failure to obey police commands.

When she heard the charges, Carter’s wife Rosalyn was stunned.

“He’s scared to death of the police,” she said. “He’s not a thug. It’s still 'yes sir, no sir,' to the police for him.”

It’s a blessing, Rosalyn said, that her husband wasn’t shot.

“Same thing with that boy,” Roelif said, referring to Michael Brown. “They shot him because they figured he was resisting.”

Protestors and police face off outside the Ferguson police department on Aug. 11, two days after Michael Brown was shot and killed.
Credit UPI/Bill Greenblatt

When Force Is Authorized

Specific use-of-force policies vary from department to department in the St. Louis area. But they are all governed by the standard set out in a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Graham vs. Connor — objectively reasonable use of force.

That means two things, said Charles Huth, a sergeant with the Kansas City Police Department who also makes sure that all 19 licensed law enforcement academies in the state are teaching use of force correctly.

Number one, you can’t consider the officer’s underlying personality.

“I could be the nicest, most polite police officer in the world, subjectively, and that won’t make a unreasonable use of force reasonable,” Huth said. “Conversely, I could be the harshest, meanest, most uncivil police officer in the world, and that won’t make a reasonable use of force unreasonable.”

Number two, you can’t consider facts the officer didn’t know at the time.

“Let’s say that someone is jaywalking, and I run up and bust their knee with a nightstick, and get them in custody,” Huth said. “Then I find out that they just assaulted three people down the road, and maybe stabbed somebody. I can’t use what they did then to justify what I did when I did what I did.”

But what’s reasonable will look different depending on the circumstances, said David Klinger, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a former police officer.

“I’m 6’4”, I weigh 225. You’re not nearly that large,” he said. “So therefore, I would be able to use lesser forms of force to accomplish the same task that you would.”

When Questions Are Raised

Statistics on fatal use-of-force encounters are hard to come by, Klinger said. But the numbers that are available show a marked decrease.

In New York City in the early 1970s, Klinger said, officers were killing up to 93 people a year. Now, there are fewer than 50 officer-involved shootings in the city, and very few of those are fatal. In a given year, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department handles about 300,000 calls. So far in 2014, there have been 12 officers-involved shootings, with two fatalities.

Klinger attributes that to better training, and the availability of non-lethal options like Tasers and bean bag rounds.

“But the public needs to understand that non-lethal options are not always viable,” he said.

Screenshot of cell phone footage of the interaction between Powell and police seconds before he was shot.
Credit Video provided by St. Louis Metropolitan Police

For example, Kajieme Powell was showing some signs of mental illness when he was shot and killed by two SLMPD officers. The city’s use of force policy says that officers may use Tasers in a situation with "a perceived mentally ill subject who may be violent and pose a threat to officers or others."

But the key word there is “may” use. Powell was wearing a sweatshirt, and Tasers have to make contact with the skin. Powell was also carrying a knife, and that same use-of-force policy considers a knife a deadly weapon within 21 feet, meaning an officer can use deadly force.

Race is also a big part of the discussion. Many deadly force cases involve white officers killing young black men, which leads to complaints that police are just looking for reasons to shoot African-Americans.

UMSL’s Klinger says officers he spoke to for his book about deadly force told him the exact opposite.

“All else being equal, if this guy was white, I was going to shoot him; but because he was black, I knew that there was going to be hell to pay because the community was going to be upset, so on and so forth, maybe I’d be prosecuted,” he said.

Clarence Harmon, a former mayor and the first black police chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, disagreed with Klinger’s findings.

“As a mayor of the city, I was widely known because I was on TV a lot,” Harmon said. “But I could go to places still where I could see from the looks of the people who are not African American that there’s a heightened sense of concern by the mere fact of my presence.”

Police officers have many of the same biases as the rest of society, Harmon said. And if you’re starting from the premise that someone is a threat, it’s easier to reach a point where you believe your life is in danger. That’s why strong relationships between police and the community they serve are important.

“Where there is that relationship, you’re less likely to receive a negative response when it’s necessary to use lethal force. And sometimes it in fact is,” he said.

Michael Brown’s death is unlikely to prompt a sea change in use-of-force policies, said Kansas City police sergeant Charles Huth.

“I’ve seen a lot of use-of-force cases like what happened in Ferguson, and the use of force isn’t the main issue there,” he said. “My gut feeling is that if you talked to the community and the police officers there, what they might understand to be the main issue is the relationship with the community.”

The vast majority of a police officer’s job is building relationships, Huth said. If those relationships aren't built, departments are failing to do their most basic task.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann