Petra Kottsieper Ph.D
A video has just surfaced of the events that lead to the shooting death of 25 year old Kajieme Powell in St. Louis. It is a very disturbing video to watch. Initially, he is walking around the sidewalk seemingly muttering to himself, after he apparently stole two energy drinks from a convenience store that he had placed on the sidewalk. He ignores other people walking past him until the cops show up, who jump out of their car and very quickly draw their weapons. Mr. Powell is seen walking towards them and you can clearly hear him yelling at the police officers to shoot him, and they do. Apparently he was wielding a knife, which is not clearly visible in the video, and was threatening the officers.
People on the scene, as well as news writers, have been quick to call this a suicide by cop event. From what you can see and hear from the video, it could very well be. So what is suicide by cop? Suicide by cop (SBC) “ is a method of suicide that occurs when a subject engages in threatening behavior in an attempt to be killed by law enforcement” (Mohandie & Meloy, 2000). Usually this involves a subject brandishing a gun at police, both loaded and unloaded, which of course is an extremely dangerous situation for officers.
SBC stats are not easy to come by, but several studies have attempted to arrive at some percentage of SBC of all police shootings. One of the more recent studies published in 2009, found suicidal motivation accounted for 36 percent of more than 700 North American police shootings.[i]
These incidents have been around for a long time, but have not received scientific research attention until 1998. Police departments and the FBI are also clearly aware of SBC, however, it is interesting to note that it was not until 1989 that the FBI began to track the number of justifiable homicides by police. Incidentally, a report from the Department of Criminal Justice, presents a large number of historical SBC case examples in their article.[ii]
Clearly calling a police shooting a SBC involves a clear and present danger to the responding officers. Most often this involves a firearm or what looks to be a firearm, but later turns out to have been a starter pistol or BB gun. In the case of Mr. Powell; however, it was a knife.
It also requires the police to be aware that the person they are dealing with is actually suicidal and or mentally ill, and some kind of recognition of the behavioral or cognitive state of the person. This is of course not easy to tell, unless the person is yelling at the police to shoot them (which sadly occurred in the case at hand), or behaves in a very erratic manner.
Which brings me to one of my final points. Do police receive specialized training to deal with individuals who appear “erratic”, or may appear threatening either due to drug use or mental health problems? And the answer is that indeed they do.
As early as 1974, forward thinking pioneers at Montgomery Country Emergency Service (MCES) in Norristown, PA started a training program where volunteer police officers were trained on mental illnesses and dual diagnosis (mental illness and substance abuse).[iii] This was part of a pre-booking jail diversion training program. This program was not started as a response to SBC, but rather as a response to the increasing arrest rates of people with mental illnesses for relatively low level offenses such as loitering, simple assault, trespassing etc. There are now numerous programs like this in the country, the best know being the Memphis CIT model (that is based on the local Montgomery Country, PA example). However, these programs fulfill the dual role of not only preventing unnecessary arrest and incarceration of individuals with mental illnesses, but also train officers of how to deal with individuals in crisis without resorting to force.
From their website: “The Memphis Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) is an innovative police based first responder program: 'This program provides law enforcement based crisis intervention training for helping those individuals with mental illness. Involvement in CIT is voluntary and based in the patrol division of the police department. In addition, CIT works in partnership with those in mental health care to provide a system of services that is friendly to the individuals with mental illness, family members, and the police officers.”[iv]
I do not envy police officers for the many challenges they have to face on a daily basis and the often ambiguous and dangerous aspects of their jobs. However, I also believe that the law enforcement community in every single jurisdiction in this country has a responsibility to implement something akin to CIT programs and/or to train all of their officers in how to deal with individuals in the community who may be mentally ill or high on substances; including those wanting to die at the very hands of the people sworn to protect them. According to a NAMI CIT fact sheet, 2000 communities in more than 40 states have implemented these kinds of trainings for their officers and we can only hope that training on how to deal with individuals in crisis (including those with a mental illnesses) will be provided to all law enforcement officers everywhere in this country for everyone’s safety. It will not bring back Mr. Powell, but it may help others who are dealing with a crisis they think they cannot overcome. It will also help the officers who are often emotionally scarred when realizing they may have unnecessarily taken a person’s life, realizing that they were dealing with a person with serious mental health problems and could have possibly responded in a different manner.