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The Police Aren't So Brave When Someone Has a Weapon

British police managed to subdue a mentally ill man armed with a machete—without even shooting him. That wouldn't happen in America.

US Capitol Police. Photo via Elvert Barnes

On August 19, St. Louis police fatally shot 25-year-old Kajieme Powell, who was holding a steak knife and refused to drop it. Powell’s last words before two different officers opened fire with 12 shots were: “Shoot me already!"

VICE News interviewed some angry people, but unlike the unrecorded shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9, the killing of Powell is considered justified by many, because he died on camera wielding a knife and refusing commands to drop it. As St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson told CNN: Tasers aren't good enough, and “in a lethal situation, [the officers] used lethal force.”

Nobody disputes that knives can be dangerous—and that it’s OK to shoot a guy who is, say, holding one to a toddler’s throat.

But there’s armed, and then there’s armed. The shooting of Powell was almost certainly legal, particularly given the extra leeway law enforcement officers are granted under the laws they enforce. The thing is, legal doesn’t necessarily mean unobjectionable, as the following cases demonstrate.

In 2010, Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk fatally shot John T. Williams, a woodcarver who was deaf in one ear. Police said Williams was carrying a knife and didn’t respond to Birk’s commands. But the dashcam video showed Birk running after Williams; just six seconds after the officer ordered Williams to “put the knife down!” the viewer hears six fatal shots coming from off-screen. (Birk later resigned, and the shooting was eventually ruled unjustified, but he faced no legal punishment.)

The golf club-wielding Todd Blair was given about five seconds to comply with Utah police back in 2011, when a SWAT team busted in his door during a no-knock drug raid. In 2012, a Houston officer, ostensibly trying to rescue his partner, fatally shot a double amputee who turned out to be holding a pen, not a knife. Last October, deputies with the LA County Sheriff’s Department fatally shot a homeless man who was reportedly armed with “a stick.”

Last Saturday, police in Howard County, Maryland, fatally shot a knife-wielding suicidal man. Individuals shot while holding knives are often seen as trying to commit suicide by cop—and cops too often oblige. Police are not mental health experts, but they are tasked with public safety. Is killing suicidal, distressed, or disoriented individuals the best they can do? (Not to mention, the mentally ill have more to fear from police than vice versa.)

British police confront a man armed with a machete.

Compare these stories with two instances of UK police—only about five percent of whom are armed—handling men with knives in an admirably brave (and restrained) fashion: in one, an officer Tasers a man with two knives from just a few feet away, while in the other, 30 cops—the visible ones clearly unarmed—spend nearly six minutes trying to apprehend an aggressively unhinged man holding a machete. If folks with whittling knives, bats, and steak knives are given mere seconds before fatal shots are fired, this guy deserved a millisecond. And yet, the cops brought him in alive—and took him to a mental health facility.

Now, there have been a handful of police shootings in the UK in the past few years. And the rarity of armed UK cops doesn’t prevent 20 or 30 suspect deaths from happening each year. But maybe we should look to the UK. Gun control is what America needs—for the police. That way we can eliminate the cops who are just in it for the bang-bang thrill, keep anyone brave enough to actually want to help people, and then start figuring out just how dangerous Tasers are anyway.

Check out the rest of this week’s bad cops:

  • Hot and fresh from The Intercept: The National Security Agency (NSA) has its own search engine containing billions of records that it shares with a dozen agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). More and more, it’s becoming clear that protecting our privacy means more than just reining in the NSA.
  • First, a reminder that the Miami-Dade Police Department once choked a boy for giving an officer “dehumanizing stares,” and arrested Carlos Miller of Photography is Not a Crime, among other folks, for filming police on the job. Now, with cameras catching cops behaving badly all the time, what a damn coincidence that the local police union is fighting Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s $1 million plan to equip 500 officers with body cameras. This, according to the police union’s letter, “will distract officers from their duties, and hamper their ability to act and react in dangerous situations.” Considering that complaints against police also go down when body cameras are in use, there is no sensible reason—other than protecting bad cops—for a police union to object to this plan.
  • On August 19, an LAPD officer and “professor of homeland security” published a disturbing editorial in The Washington Post about obeying police orders. Officer Sunil Dutta probably didn’t write the headline (“I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.”) but it does sum up what is a creepy piece. And it doesn’t bode well that a cop who wants to share his opinion seems to have the exact same opinion as the ones screaming at protesters and media in the streets.
  • An ongoing lawsuit contains some disturbing allegations about one of the two Ferguson police officers who detained Huffington Post and Washington Post reporters as they sat in a McDonald’s on August 13, a day of continuous protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The civil suit accuses Officer Justin Cosma, then a deputy with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, of accosting a 12-year-old boy at the preteen’s own mailbox, accusing him of running on a highway, and then throwing him on the ground, choking him, and “hog-tying” him. The boy was taken to a hospital, but only the refusal of the local DA to prosecute prevented the officer from being charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly tweeted that “Officer Cosma was actually the nicer of the two cops who took me into custody.”
  • Bystanders in a Greenville County, South Carolina, Walmart thought local deputies used excessive force during their arrest of Sandon Matthew Sierad, who was acting erratically and reportedly refusing arrest. Police Tasered him twice and then one of them hit Sierad 20 times in the back or shoulder, provoking angry cries from witnesses, some of whom spoke to local news afterwards. Video from the scene shows that the man does not appear to ever actively resist, though Master Deputy Jonathan Smith says that disturbing footage was the end of a half-hour confrontation with Sierad, who had been (presumably) drunkenly trying to break into a cash register in the store, and had also reached for a deputy’s knife. As of Monday, the deputy who punched Sierad is on administrative leave. Meanwhile Sierad is charged with “resisting arrest with assault/injury, assault and battery third degree, breach of peace, and disorderly conduct.”
  • Two Fairfield, California police officers are accused of using a law enforcement database to check out potential lady-friends. Officers Stephen Ruiz and Jacob Glashoff looked up women on dating sites and then made sure the intriguing ones were kosher by checking the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System for criminal records. The officers did all of this while on the clock. They remain on active duty while the investigation takes place. 
  • On August 21, Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw was arrested for reportedly sexually assaulting six different women.
  • The blue wall also crumbles in the face of social media idiocy. On Friday, Glendale, Missouri, police officer Matthew Pappert, who has been serving in Ferguson during some of the protests there, was suspended for some truly disturbing Facebook posts about the people outraged over the shooting of Michael Brown. One post: “These protesters should have been put down like a rabid dog the first night.” Another: “Where is a Muslim with a backpack when you need them." And another: “Great, thugs and white trash all in one location.”
  • Meanwhile, Ray Albers of the St. Ann, Missouri, police department was indefinitely suspended without pay last week due to the fact that he pointed his semi-automatic weapon at protesters in Ferguson and said, “I will fucking kill you.” More accountability which would have never, ever happened if the incident wasn’t captured on film.
  • Speaking of small progress in policing, VICE’s good cop of the week is over in Hawaii. After watching the mess in Ferguson, Kauai Police Chief Darryl Perry wants every officer on his force to have body cameras. The only downsides to this plan are that officers will be able to turn off the cameras, and that they will be purchased with asset forfeiture funds. Nevertheless, any chief who is this adamant on bringing in body cameras is moving in the right right direction and gets to be our Good Cop.

Follow Lucy Steigerwald on Twitter.