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Editor's Weekly: Legal answers and common sense questions on Kajieme Powell's death

Footage of cell phone video of the Aug. 20, 2014, death of Kajieme Powell
Video provided by St. Louis Metropolitan Police

Michael Brown's death got international attention. But for those of us who live here in St. Louis, the police shooting of Kajieme Powell raises questions that are at least as troubling -- questions about police procedure, community trust and the confrontations that test both.

This week, as Rachel Lippmann reported, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce announced that she would not bring charges against the St. Louis officers who killed Powell in August 2014, when Ferguson protests were already running hot. Powell had a knife and was moving toward them, her report says. It concludes:  "Prosecutors have determined that a criminal violation against either officer could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

The report adds: "It is a tragedy that a life was lost in this incident."

While the report may make legal sense, common sense raises questions:

  • Couldn't police have found a less-than-lethal way to defuse the situation?
  • Specifically, isn’t there a better way to handle people who are behaving strangely?
  • How many police shootings are potentially avoidable?
  • What could improve the odds that confrontations like this won't end in tragedy?

Unlike Brown's death, Powell's final moments were recorded on a cellphone video. It's chilling to watch – and revealing. How quickly an encounter can turn deadly.

The video begins with an odd scene: Powell paces near two beverage cans on the sidewalk. Apparently they’re the drinks he's just taken from a nearby store, where he also threatened the clerk. The shoplifting and aggressive behavior prompted the call to police. Joyce's office says that Powell had threatened other people as well, though some people you see on the video seem to pass by or linger without incident.

Narrating the action, the cellphone videographer chuckles at first. But his tone turns serious when a police car pulls up and two officers get out. "They got a gun out," the narrator says.

Powell heads toward the police, turns aside, then starts toward them again. The circuit attorney's report describes what happens: Powell pulls out a knife. Police order him to drop it. Powell says, "Shoot me. Shoot me now."

Less than 30 seconds after police arrive, they fell Powell with several shots. "Oh my God," the narrator gasps. "They just killed him. Oh, here we go again." As a small crowd gathers, police move people back, and you can hear anger, fear and confusion begin to build.

Did this tragedy have to happen? That’s a different question than the one Joyce’s office investigated. The legal question was narrow: Did police have justification to shoot? Other legal questions may be raised in the Powell family's wrongful death suit.

Oh my God. They just killed him. Oh, here we go again.

But the law is better at sorting out rights and obligations than it is at figuring out how confrontations can be defused and deaths minimized.

The Ferguson Commission and other advisory panels have made a good start at tackling that challenge. Better police procedures, better training in de-escalation and a better relationship between police and African Americans – these steps can bring best practices to difficult and hazardous circumstances. These steps can reduce risk for citizens and police alike.

But taking these steps requires will, resources and sustained commitment from lawmakers, police, civic leaders and citizens.

That kind of effort is rare and potentially costly. The sad, sad video of Kajieme Powell dying is a reminder that the status quo is costly, too.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include more specific information from the circuit attorney's office saying that people had reported being threatened by Powell.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.