Kajieme Powell Died Because Police Have Become America’s Mental-Health Workers

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Aug. 22 2014 11:48 AM

Kajieme Powell Died Because Police Have Become America’s Mental-Health Workers

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Not doing the right job

Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Science of Us.

On Tuesday, 25-year-old Kajieme Powell was shot by St. Louis police responding to a call that he had stolen two canned energy drinks and a packet of pastries from a local convenience store. As a video of the incident reveals, Powell had been stalking the sidewalk in front of the store, the cans on the ground before him, when the police arrived. A few moments later, he was dead.

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If you haven’t seen the video yet, here it is—don’t watch it unless you’re okay with seeing someone get shot and killed.

The Metropolitan Police Department of St. Louis, which released the video to the public, believes the footage exculpates the responding officers of any wrongdoing. But as the New York Times reports, the video conflicts with key aspects of the initial police account: At first, the department said that Powell had raised his knife at the officers and was only a few feet away from them at the time they opened fire, and the video shows both of these things to be false (he’s close, but more than a few feet away).

Those last few seconds of Powell’s life will be parsed, and appropriately so, but this focus obscures a bigger issue: As a result of the nation’s patchy, frequently inadequate mental-health-care system, police are all too often the first responders to mental-health crises. Powell’s death is a worst-case reminder of why this is can be disastrous.

Both the video, in which Powell can be seen acting erratically and yelling at the officers to shoot him once they arrive, and accounts from neighbors relayed via Chris Hayes, support the idea that the police weren’t dealing with a regular shoplifting criminal, but with a man suffering from un- or undertreated mental illness.

This is an unfortunately common script. “These encounters go on every day, and they contribute to the mass incarceration of people with mental illness,” said Robert Bernstein, president and executive director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. The high rates of mental-health issues among jail and prison inmates can’t be explained entirely by these encounters—imprisonment itself can lead to or exacerbate mental illness—but they are certainly part of the story. “There are, shamefully, lots of people with public mental illness who are known to public systems, out there on the streets, very much at the risk of being victimized or engaging in conduct that could get them in trouble with the police,” Bernstein said.

There are complicated reasons for this, many of them summed up by an informative Bazelon report, but what it comes down to is that all too often, Americans simply don’t have access to the mental-health resources they need. They fall through crack after crack in the system, and hitting bottom usually involves an encounter with the police.

“Police absolutely want to get out of the mental-health business,” said Bernstein. “This is something that has been thrust upon them just because of a lack of resources in mental-health care. They all believe they have better things to do, even when things go right.” In his (and his organization's) eyes, any time a mentally-ill person is approached by police as a possible perpetrator of a crime, it’s a failure of the mental-health system.

That said, mental-health advocates and law-enforcement personnel know that this unfortunate status quo isn’t going to change anytime soon. That’s why programs like Crisis Intervention Teams have been invented. CIT training consists of about 40 hours of programming seeking to teach police officers how to deal with mental illness when they encounter it. Among other things, the curriculum offers verbal tools for dealing with individuals in crisis, and conversations with those who suffer from mental illness, as well as their families.

Part of the training prepares officers for situations in which a mentally-ill person doesn’t respond to commands the way most people do, and this includes training on when a softer, more gentle voice might help de-escalate a situation, as opposed to the louder, more imperative tone often used when interacting with suspects—particularly those seen as dangerous or noncompliant.

In an ideal situation, how would police have dealt with the call about Powell? The groundwork would have needed to have been laid before they arrived, said Major Sam Cochran, a retired law-enforcement officer and leading CIT specialist. For a dispatcher to know to send a CIT officer, an incident needs to be reported as a mental-health emergency.

Once CIT officers are on-scene, a key point to understand is that crisis intervention isn’t really possible until a certain level of security has been established. “The first step is always going to be for responding officers to make sure the individual doesn’t pose a threat to them or to any bystanders,” said Cochran. Then and only then can a CIT officer start trying to apply her or his skills to a given situation. “Invariably, opening up communications is a process,” he said. “You’d like to slow things down as quickly as possible.” Ideally, officers can get the individual in question in a position where conversation is possible, and can get them “to just stop and pause, and starting to talk at a safe distance,” said Cochran.

In an email to Science of Us, the Metropolitan Police’s Public Affairs Office said that one of the two officers who shot Powell was CIT-certified. But unfortunately, that probably didn’t matter. For one thing, according to 911-call and dispatch audio the department made available, the incident wasn’t reported as a potential mental-health emergency—the responding officers knew only that there had been a disturbance and robbery, and that the suspect had a knife.

And given the sequence of events once the officers arrived, the CIT officer was given little opportunity to deploy his knowledge. Michael Woody, a CIT expert and former police trainer in Akron, Ohio, watched the video and said that it didn’t appear to be a case in which CIT protocol could have come into play at all.

Many people who have watched the video—myself included—have noticed that the responding officers seemed to escalate the situation very quickly by immediately exiting their squad car with their guns drawn on Powell. But Woody, who wrote a paper about mental-health crisis de-escalation that starts with a hypothetical story about a young woman being killed for refusing to drop a knife, said that this is normal protocol.

Given that the officers knew Powell had a knife, he said, “You absolutely have to have your gun out.” “In my opinion, I don’t think a CIT officer could have done anything else different in that case,” he said, since Powell continually moved toward them and the situation never reached the sort of stable détente in which CIT can serve a helpful role. (Cochran, who hadn’t seen the video, concurred that a guns-drawn approach did not on its own signal the officers had acted improperly.)

“It puts an exclamation point on officers needing more training on dealing with people with mental illness, because they’re the ones getting these calls,” said Woody. “They’re the new mental-health workers in America.” Cochran, for his part, said Powell’s death highlights “why we need a strong mental-health system, or layers of systems, in our community, so individuals can have access to some kind of support to be able to accommodate an effective life living with [their] illness.”

All of which is a fancy way of saying that an armed confrontation involving law enforcement isn’t the best venue in which to deal with mental illness. That doesn't mean this situation had to end the way it did—as witnesses pointed out in the video, it isn’t clear why police couldn’t have used Tasers or other nonlethal weapons to halt Powell’s advance (a point echoed by Woody). But it does mean that the range of possible positive outcomes for Powell narrowed significantly the moment police were dispatched on Tuesday.

As Bernstein put it, “People rarely, rarely, rarely just snap. If anybody is watching, there’s an observable trajectory where everybody knows somebody’s at risk, everybody knows somebody isn’t doing well.” For whatever reasons, Kajieme Powell snapped without anyone noticing. For his story to have had a happy ending, he needed help long before he stole those energy drinks.

Jesse Singal is a senior editor at NYMag.com, where he edits the social-science blog Science of Us. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.