Still, the footage of Powell’s shooting suggests that this wasn’t a kill-or-be-killed situation for police. While allegedly armed with a knife, Powell was not carrying a firearm. Even so, it took officers less than 16 seconds to open fire from the time they left their car. While the video of Powell’s death is disturbing, I’m choosing to embed it here so you can watch it yourself and make your own judgments about the officers’ actions.
Given what little information they had upon arriving at the scene, it makes sense that they would have drawn their guns immediately upon their arrival. It’s less clear why they opted to use their firearms instead of a nonlethal weapon like a Taser or why they didn’t initially simply back away in hopes of avoiding a confrontation with a man who was not within striking distance of anyone.
Police officers are put in similar positions all too often. Consider what played out this past weekend in Ottawa, Kansas, where police shot and killed 18-year-old Joseph Jennings in the parking lot of a local hardware store. Jennings was said to be suicidal and, according to his aunt, had been treated for an overdose at a nearby hospital shortly before he was killed. While the shooting is under investigation, local authorities say their officers responded appropriately given that they believed Jennings was armed. “They reacted based upon the training that they’ve been given from the academy,” Ottawa Police Chief Dennis Butler said during a weekend press conference. “We were thankful that no officer was injured from protecting themselves from risk of great bodily harm.”
The teen’s family tells a different story. “[The officers] knew him,” Jennings’ aunt, Brandy Smith, told the local paper. “They dealt with him the day before. He was suicidal. He had only been out of the [psychiatric] hospital for three hours when they shot him. I was screaming at the top [of my] lungs, ‘That’s Joseph Jennings! You know him, don’t shoot him!’ ”
We’re still missing crucial details from the Kansas case—most notably whether Jennings was actually armed as the responding officers believed he was in the moment. And without a video or a fuller accounting of what happened, it’s too early to pass judgment on whether the cops were justified in their use of force. But history suggests that in a case like this one, authorities will never have to differentiate between a justified shooting and an unavoidable one. That’s the danger of thinking of a shooting like this one as suicide by cop: It means that nobody has to answer the difficult questions that should be asked.
It’s also worth pondering whether the mere existence of the term suicide by cop could play a role, however small, in these sorts of shootings. That language doesn’t just take police officers off the hook in the aftermath of potentially avoidable deaths. It also gives the false impression that if police have a reason to shoot you, they automatically will. Such a notion could encourage people who are indeed suicidal to place themselves in risky, dangerous encounters with the police. As Smith said of her nephew: “I think he was on a suicide mission.”
To be clear, police officers do sometimes have little choice but to use lethal force. And we should have tremendous sympathy for those who are put in that horrible situation: Research suggests that those officers who take a life in the line of duty are more likely to suffer PTSD-like symptoms and to retire early from the force.
Take the story of Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Deputy Glenn Vincent, who shot and killed a 30-year-old woman who pointed a gun at his chest from close-range. Police would later discover a note in the women’s car that read, in part: “Please forgive me. My intention was never to hurt anyone. This was just a sad and sick ruse to get someone to shoot me. I’m so very sorry for pulling innocent people into this. I just didn’t have the nerve to pull the trigger myself.”
Cases of this sort are all the more reason to do away with a term that puts too many disparate types of police shootings on equal footing. That was a suicide by cop. The Kajieme Powell case was not. It’s time we understood the difference.