More than a year after two St. Louis city police officers shot and killed Kajieme Powell, the Circuit Attorney’s Office has decided not to charge the officers with a crime. Representatives of the circuit attorney met with Powell’s family today to break the news. Prosecutor Jennifer Joyce’s office explained the reasoning for its decision in a 30-page report acquired by SLM.
“Prosecutors have determined a criminal violation against either officer could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” the report says. “Therefore, charges will not be filed in this case.” The report does not identify the officers in question, referring to them simply as Officer 1 and Officer 2.
A separate analysis of the shooting, prepared by Washington University professor William Harmening and acquired exclusively by SLM, calls into question many of the circuit attorney’s conclusions. A civil suit brought by Powell's family is still pending.
On August 19, 2014, at about lunchtime, in the North City neighborhood of Baden, the report says Kajieme Powell stole a snack and two energy drinks from a convenience store. When a store clerk confronted him on the street, Powell allegedly threatened the clerk. Concerned by Powell’s behavior, two witnesses called 911. They observed that Powell was carrying a knife. The report notes that, “No 911 caller informed the dispatcher that Powell was or appeared to be suffering from any kind of mental breakdown.”
What happened next was captured on a cellphone video. Two police officers responded to the scene in an SUV. The officers exited their vehicle and drew their guns. They commanded Powell to remove his hand from his pocket and to drop his knife. Powell moved toward the officers. The circuit attorney’s report says he moved “quickly,” but the video evidence would seem to conflict with that claim. Later, police chief Sam Dotson would say that Powell raised the knife over his head, but the video shows he did not. Powell continued to move toward the officers, climbing over a retaining wall and yelling at the officers to shoot him. They did. Each officer fired six shots, first in a quick volley of shots, followed by a brief pause, and then two more shots, once Powell was on the ground. Less than 30 seconds elapsed from the time police arrived on the scene until Powell was dead.
Circuit Attorney’s Analysis
In their report, prosecutors concluded that the officers were justified in using deadly force in self-defense and that they may have been justified in using deadly force as a means to making an arrest.
The circuit attorney’s office reviewed witness statements and the cellphone video, as well as ballistics and DNA evidence. Prosecutors also commissioned a 3-D spacial analysis of the scene. The analysis concluded that Powell was moving toward the officers in an aggressive, threatening manner, “at a rate significantly above that of a typical pedestrian,” and that at the time of the first shot, he was within 15 feet of the officers. The analysis concluded that Powell could have reached the officers within between 1.2 and 2.4 seconds. No one disputes that he was carrying a knife, which is legally classified as a deadly weapon. The circuit attorney’s report places special emphasis on the fact that Powell was carrying the knife in an “overhand grip,” with the blade pointed out toward his pinky. The knife recovered from the scene was approximately nine inches long.
The circuit attorney’s office requested interviews with the officers, but both declined through their attorneys. In their recorded statements to police investigators, both officers said they were trained to use deadly force when someone with a knife came within approximately 20 feet (one said 20, the other 21). This is a reference to the Tueller Drill, a self-defense training exercise that simulates a knife attack.
The circuit attorney’s report also references the fact that even after he was shot and fell to the ground, Powell continued to move toward the officers, which could be seen as evidence that he still posed a threat even after he was down. This could be used as justification for the later shots, including the two final shots. According to the report, the autopsy results showed that “none of the shots would have been immediately fatal and that Powell could still have been moving after he was on the ground.”
When weighing all of the evidence together, prosecutors determined that, “under the law, Officer 1’s deadly force was a legal act of self-defense. Prosecutors also concluded that Officer 2’s deadly force was a legal act to protect Officer 1. Section 563.063 authorizes the use of force in defense of others, including deadly force, where appropriate. Though acting as law enforcement officers at the time, had either Officer 1 or Officer 2 been acting in any other capacity, or simply walking down the street when Powell approached them in this manner, both would still have been legally justified in using deadly force.”
A Conflicting Perspective
In March 2015, Washington University professor, long-time law-enforcement professional, and use-of-force expert William Harmening prepared a “force analysis” in the Kajieme Powell case. He says he first shared it with prosecutors, before eventually giving it to the attorney for Powell’s family. He also shared it with SLM.
In his report, Harmening objects to the “misapplication” of the “21-foot rule as justification for the shooting.” In the Tueller Drill, officers begin with their weapons in their holsters. The 21-foot danger zone is set to give them time to perceive a threat, draw their weapons, decide to shoot, and pull the trigger, he says. In this case, however, the officers already had their guns drawn and pointed at their target. That means they needed less time to react and should have perceived a shorter distance as the “danger zone.” Harmening says 6 or 7 feet would have been appropriate. He argues that in the video, while Powell does move toward the officers, he never does anything threatening, like raise the knife above his head. At one point he even takes a few steps away from the officers. The grip, he says, is irrelevant.
He also says that the officers should have considered alternative weapons. The officers said in their statements that a Taser would not have been effective given that Powell was wearing baggy clothing. Harmening disagrees. He says that Tasers are effective 85 to 94 percent of the time, and that modern Tasers can penetrate two inches of clothing. Further, he says the officers should have positioned themselves behind the car, to use it as a shield, rather than coming out in front of it, exposing themselves and possibly provoking Powell.
Harmening strongly objects to the report’s conclusions that Powell continued to move toward the officers once he was down. Harmening argues that Powell rolling downhill does not constitute justification for continued use of deadly force, especially when considering the final two shots, which followed a quick but perceptible pause, once Powell was already down.
In conclusion, Harmening writes, “The initial shot fired at Powell did not meet the reasonableness standard established in [Supreme Court case] Graham v. Connor. The reasonable officer would have experienced minimal fear of harm to themselves or others by Powell… Powell was making no threatening gestures toward any of the witnesses on the street… Powell was neither charging nor lunging with the knife.”
Further, Harmening says, even if one assumes the initial shot was justified, “then all shots after shot No. 5 were unnecessary… Most troubling were the final two shots, which occurred following a short pause, indicating that some mental processing was taking place during the pause. Even minimal processing would have led the officers to perceive that Powell was on the ground and barely moving. It is very possible that he was already deceased by the time the final two shots were fired.”