In St. Louis, Missouri this week a very sad situation, one that occurs way too often, was played out involving a young African-American male being shot and killed by police. This tragedy has, among other things, provided an insight into policing methods. I’m not referring to Michael Brown, an unarmed shoplifter, being gunned down by Ferguson, Missouri police for allegedly “bum rushing” a police officer, but rather the case of 25 year-old Kajieme Powell who, albeit armed with a knife, was shot and killed by St. Louis police.
The incident, like so many in this era of smartphones, was recorded and has been broadcast worldwide. In the video Powell emerges from a store erratically wielding a knife, several police cars arrive, officers train their guns on him and tell him to drop the knife, he opts not to and, although not “bum rushing” the officers, he encroaches upon the 21-foot perimeter that police use as a safety zone, they then open fire on him. Numerous shots are directed at Powell, resulting in his death.
There are no doubt several aspects of this shooting that are worthy of discussion, not least of all the issue of mental health, but also how and who established this arbitrary 21-foot demarcation.
Twenty-one feet, seven yards, almost six and a half meters: evidently that’s the point at which police officers are deemed to be in physical danger (this obviously doesn’t apply to suspects armed with firearms). In other words, that’s when they start shooting. Can you even see the whites of someone’s eyes from that distance? You would need to have a very long knife or baseball bat to do any harm from that distance. Fatally shooting someone for breaching that perimeter, even armed with a knife, seems untoward. Did the police consider maintaining space between themselves and Powell by backing up? He had a knife, not a gun. Or were they more intent on shooting at the first opportunity?
According to CNN’s Van Jones on average two African-American men per week are killed by police in the US. Could that statistic be reduced by reconsidering the 21-foot zone? I am aware, and fully understand, that when police feel threatened they shoot at the person’s torso, not wasting time trying to hit legs. But is there an alternative to shooting those who are armed with weapons other than guns – pepper spray, tasers?