A few nights ago, St. Louis County Tactical Officers fatally shot a twenty three year old black individual by the name of Thaddeus McCarroll in Jennings following a standoff. Mr. McCarroll was armed with a knife at the onset of the incident, having locked his mother out of the house while ranting about a “mission,” a “journey,” and a “black revolution.” The preponderance of the evidence seems to support the notion that Mr. McCarroll was suffering from some form of mental illness.
County Police allege that after a two hour standoff Mr. McCarroll started to advance on the officers, at which point he was struck with a less lethal round in the thigh (which to me indicates beanbag round, though it wasn’t explicitly stated in the press conference.) However, Thaddeus continued to advance on the officers while still armed with the knife. The resulting action was deadly force meeting deadly force. If the above facts are true then the shooting is unfortunate, but justified.
However, those that find fault with the county are split between two separate camps at the moment. The first group is the familiar Ferguson Twitter Brigade crowd who are only really concerned with the race of the deceased and the fact that the shooter was a policeman. The second group is a somewhat less vocal group who find fault with the police for a perceived lack of training in mentally ill subjects as well as a lack of de-escalation technique utilization.
A number of people subscribing to the second group’s philosophy discussed the shooting death of Kajime Powell on this blog in the comments section months ago. As a refresher, Kajime Powell shoplifted two bottles from a convenience store, immediately set the bottles on the curb, then approached two St. Louis City officers with a knife when they showed up. The officers fatally shot Mr. Powell evidently fulfilling his suicidal goal as later evidenced by a pile of previous mental health history.
A large part of the discussion here revolved around the failure to use the Taser and what specifically constitutes deadly force. To save time and as a refresher:
- 1.) A knife constitutes deadly force, therefore a firearm may legally be used against a subject armed with a knife.
- 2.) A Taser does not render a person unconscious like it is frequently depicted on TV. Therefore, as soon as the five second cycle is over, the person is immediately able to begin resisting again, now typically more angry than before due to the pain caused to them. Individuals hit with a Taser also tend to clench up, so while it’s possible that an individual armed with a knife might have dropped it, it is just as likely that the individual will have an involuntary death grip on the blade until the cycle ends.
- 3.) Kajime Powell’s shooting is problematic because of there being two officers present. Had one attempted to use the Taser and it failed/missed, followed up by the second officer using deadly force, the act is unquestionably justified based upon police procedure/training, law, and legal precedent. However, since there was no attempt at using the Taser with two officers present, the shooting is perhaps unnecessary though it is not illegal. The incident was over in seconds and it is entirely plausible that both officers thought the other would use a Taser or simply didn’t have the time to plan such an effort.
In the case of Thaddeus McCarroll, the officers tried to talk him down for two hours and utilized a less lethal weapon before resorting to deadly force. That separates the current situation from Kajime Powell.
- 4.) With that said, officers are under no legal requirement to stair-step use-of-force options. I don’t have to try and use every item on my belt before I get to my gun. I respond with a proportionate response with many agencies mandating a “plus one” approach. A guy raises his fists, so I raise my baton. A guy raises a knife, so I raise a gun. In reference to Kajime Powell, if I get to that scene first and am by myself when he approaches the car armed with a knife, shooting him is likely the only safe option for me should he fail to respond to commands to drop the weapon.
So, setting aside the legal and policy issues surrounding deadly force incidents involving the mentally ill, let’s discuss some of the more uncommon issues that arise in reference to police action and those dealing with mental illness.
First of all, police in Missouri are limited in their response options to those suffering from mental illness. In order for someone to qualify for what is known as a 96 hour hold, a client must be a danger to themselves or others in such a way that can be articulated into an affidavit. A court order dictates that a facility will observe an individual and determine if further in-patient treatment is required. I’ve never seen it extended. Furthermore, most facilities commonly release their clients far earlier than the 96 hour mark. Their clients certainly aren’t receiving miracle treatment that cures their ailments in 96 hours or less.
One could make the assumption that further out-patient care will be recommended, but even if such a recommendation takes place, it is largely pointless since it seems like the majority of the people we deal with involving mental health issues severe enough to warrant a 96 hour hold, are either homeless, indigent, without others such as family to facilitate further treatment, or some combination thereof.
There is a great deal of training in mental health issues being offered for free to police around the area. The CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) program does a decent job at trying to explain mental health issues to officers and give them a better understanding of the vastly different conditions we may come in contact with on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the week-long training can be summed up in two statements, in reference to how an officer should treat what has now become known as a “CIT Case.”
- 1.) Be Patient
- 2.) Be Empathetic
While both statements are true, they are also largely character based on the officer’s part and not really the type of concepts that can be trained, at least not in a week. The reason I bring up mental health issues on a much smaller, less violent scale, is that most of the officer involved shootings involve individuals who have had prior run-ins with the police and the mental health system, and thus the repeated line in news reports indicating a history of mental illness. It is also not outside the realm of possibility that undiagnosed mental illness is a contributing factor to some of the other officer involved shootings where such a history is not readily available. While it is easy to blame officers and not an individual who is demonstrably not thinking clearly in a situation such as this, more focus needs to be placed on helping these people at the beginning of their difficulties, instead of at the end when illness becomes severe enough to facilitate a violent encounter with a member of the public or the police.
At the point that someone is a threat to themselves or others, they qualify for a 96 hour hold. At the point that same individual is an “imminent” threat of death or serious bodily injury, they qualify for deadly force. There is a great deal of misunderstanding when it comes to the term “imminent.” A person pacing his house with a weapon is not an imminent threat, but when combined with other mental health indicators likely qualifies for a 96 hour hold. At the point that same person charges the police or a bystander armed with a deadly weapon such as a knife, or points a gun at the police or a bystander, they are at that point considered an imminent threat. The time for any hope of de-escalation is over. Even CIT training indicates this.
Utilizing deadly force against someone who is not reasonably believed to pose an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury is uniformly unjustified across all jurisdictions in this country.
In a related note (but related in a way that will take me a moment to fully explain), a number of unexpected changes in the community have manifested possibly as a result of the death of Mike Brown and the riots that followed. These changes are being called colloquially, “The Ferguson Effect.” For example, the dramatic increase in crime rates and police attrition are being blamed on the Ferguson Effect. Another possible symptom of the Ferguson Effect, seems to be individuals with suicidal tendencies becoming more likely to seek out suicide-by-cop scenarios as they continue to be bombarded by social media and other channels with the narrative that police are just looking to kill people for very little or no reason. This seems to be increasingly common in the black community when bolstered by the belief that the above narrative is entirely racially based.
What’s more, the current climate, particularly in St. Louis, indicates to someone considering suicide that if they are black and killed by a policeman, that they will be celebrated by the community as a martyr and not blamed for their actions. This is something that would not happen if they simply took their own life by their own hand. Responsibility is shed and transferred to the responding officers. Historically, suicide-by-cop has not been viewed as the fault of the police but as evidenced by the unfortunate deaths of Kajime Powell and Thaddeus McCarroll, that has changed.