Cops vs. Man With Knife

August 21, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Despite the cellphone video of two police officers killing Kajieme Powell, there is some dispute as to what happened.  (See this account in The Atlantic.) Was Powell threatening them; did he hold the knife high; was he only three or four feet away?

The video is all over the Internet, including the Atlantic link above. I’m not going to include it here.  The officers get out of the car, immediately draw their guns, and walk towards Powell. Is this the best way to deal with a disturbed or possibly deranged individual – to confront him and then shoot him several times if he does something that might be threatening?

Watch the video (you can find it in the Atlantic link above and elsewhere). Then watch London police confronting a truly deranged and dangerous man. (The video is from 2011. I’m surprised it hasn’t been recycled this week.) Powell had a steak knife, and it’s not clear whether he raised it or swung it at all.The man in London has a machete and is swinging it about.


Unfortunately, the London video does not show us how the incident got started.* By the time the person started recording, at least ten officers were already on the scene. They do not have guns. They have shields and truncheons. The London police tactic used more officers, and the incident took more time. But nobody died.

The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years. Nationwide, America’s police kill roughly one person a day.

The quote above is from an article in this week’s Economist (here), which includes this graphic:


I’m sure that the Powell killing will elicit not just sympathy for the St. Louis police but in some quarters high praise – something to the effect that what they did was a good deed and that the victims got what they deserved. But righteous slaughter is slaughter nevertheless. A life has been taken.

You would think that other recent videos of righteous slaughter elsewhere in the world would get us to reconsider this response to killing. But instead, these seem only to strengthen tribal Us/Them ways of thinking. If one of Us who kills one of Them, then the killing must have been necessary and even virtuous.

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* I don’t know how the St. Louis incident got started. Who called the police, and what did they say? In the video, Powell is not menacing anyone, and the bystanders seem bemused rather than fearful.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

The St. Louis incident concerning Powell started when he robbed a convenience store of two sodas, which you can see him set down on the curb in the video. The middle eastern man with the red striped shirt called the cops because he is employed at the store and witnessed the theft. They were bemused because in the full version of the video you can see Powell walking around frantically and yelling/rambling after setting down the merchandise he just stole but not generally threateningly. I would probably stop and watch, wondering what was up too.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for filling in the info. The video narrator tells us that Powell had stolen the two cans of soda, but I hadn't realized that the man in the striped shirt was from the store and had called the cops.

Anonymous said...

LOL "Middle Eastern Man". He's clearly South Asian. There is a difference, look it up.

Anonymous said...

The robbery was strictly to get the police called there. In the video you can even hear the store clerk saying something like "I understand what your doing but this is not the way to go about it." It could be argued that the police wanted the confrontation as well because they figured "2v1? We don't need to wait for backup!" Its that cowboy mentality that makes more and more people begin to dislike American police every day.

Anonymous said...

"The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years."

There is a reason for this. The criminals of Ferguson in 2011 and 2012 committed a quarter as many gun homicides as criminals across the entire country of Japan in 2007 and 2008.

Unlike the UK/Japan, Cops in the US must assume that a citizen with his hand in his pocket is brandishing a gun.

Hence the Powell incident: he had his hand in his pocket, and by the time it was clear that he had a knife, rather than a gun, he was within one or two seconds' strike radius. There was no time for officers to switch to non-lethal weapons.

The Powell shooting was a tragedy, but it was not preventable by the officers involved. At least not in the American context.

Jay Livingston said...

Yes, in a country flooded with guns, cops must be more careful. I'm not sure, but I would guess that the person from the store who called the cops also told them that the man had a knife. It's dismaying that the cops did not know what was obvious to everyone else on the scene. The less the police know the people and places they patrol, the less effective they will be in their mission both to serve and to protect.

Kitchen Knives said...

- Was Powell threatening them; did he hold the knife high; was he only ... 2kitchenknives.blogspot.com