Cult of Compliance – Psychiatric Disability with Weapons

“They reacted based upon the training that they’ve been given from the academy. We were thankful that no officer was injured from protecting themselves from risk of great bodily harm.”

I have a new piece on CNN today about police killings of people with psychatric disabilities. I argue that we need to view these cases through the lens of disability, a word that carries with it certain rights, the principle of accommodation, and a different cultural response than “illness” (let alone crazy).

This is not like the case of Ezell Ford, where the man was unarmed. Each of these five featured a person with known psychiatric issues holding a weapon or seemingly holding a weapon. Each ended with in police gunfire. In only one case was there a highly dangerous weapon – a combat knife.

In my CNN piece, I describe the four most recent cases, four killings in two weeks. 2 in California, 1 in Arizona, and of course Kajieme Powell in St. Louis. I filed on Friday.

On Saturday, there was another killing, this one in Ottawa, Kansas.

Joseph Jennings was struggling with depression and anxiety. He left a suicide note on facebook and swallowed pills, but he survived, in part thanks to two officers who showed up at the house in response to emergency calls. A few hours after leaving the hospital, though, Jennings seems to have gone to a Walmart, puchased a BB gun or water gun, and then got the cops called in order to commit suicide by cop.

The parents arrived in time to try and deescalate the situation, but were ordered back (warned they would get shot if they didn’t comply). “Bag him,” the officers said, and they started shooting. First beanbag rounds, then real bullets (at least 16 shots by report). Jennings died.

There are three stories here that I want to emphasize.

1) Jennings had just survived a suicide attempt and then was released from the hospital. We need better mental health care that is accessible and affordable for all.

2) I believe that quote with which I started this piece is true. Police followed their training. It is time to demand new training. CIT training alone isn’t going to cut it, and I hope to have a piece on its limitations (Lawrence Carter-Long and I are working on something) within a week or two, but it’s a start. We need to totally rethink the way that police engage with people who have disabilities of every sort.

And then we will all be safer, disabled and abled alike.

3) In the video (linked here) of the police chief, he says a slightly different version of the quote that everyone is running. He says, “We were thankful that no police officers or sheriff’s deputies was injured while defending themselves from the potential threat of serious bodily harm.”

Look at that justifying language. There was a potential threat of serious bodily harm, the boy didn’t comply, and so the police were justified in their actions. Except there wasn’t really a threat, since he had a BB gun, his parents were there (the dad was about to tackle him to take him down, he was in arms reach).

According to this police officer, just a potential threat justifies deadly force, and surviving a non-existent but potential threat is something to be thankful about. 

We are all in danger. When the police think we are dangerous, whether we are or not, they believe themselves to be justified in using lethal force.

Now I am a middle class white guy. I’m not likely to be seen as dangerous, unless my behavior turns erratic due to any number of factors – alcohol, illness, confusion. So my personal stake is pretty low. As we’ve seen in Missouri, any black body, especially male, is regarded as a threat by police. The potential threat is always there, so they can always use lethal force and justify it.

A known-disabled-mind, in a way that is similar, though not tied to centuries of institutional racism, when acting in an “erratic” (that’s a cop incident-report word) fashion, also raises the “potential threat” level.

And when, like Kajieme Powell, you have a black body with a psychiatric disability, there’s basically no hope.

8 Replies to “Cult of Compliance – Psychiatric Disability with Weapons”

  1. Anonymous says:


    thank you for your piece on CNN. My wife has d.i.d. and though we are through the worst of it at this point, in the beginning some of the other girls did erratic things. How sad that people are dying because of police ignorance and then they justify their right to kill to the rest of us. Good luck trying to change things!


  2. Jeremy T says:

    David, while your attempt to protect the mentally disabled is admirable and worthy of note, you have no real understanding of police strategy and tactics.

    I'm not going to attempt to justify every police officer and every use of force situation, but I will provide you with some solid facts that are worthy of debate. Some police officers' actions are incorrect and some are illegal, there is a difference. For that reason, I cannot defend every action every police officer has ever taken against another person, because sometimes they are wrong. But I hope we can spark a discussion based on certain factors that can illustrate the problems faced by police officers and the perception of these situations by the public.

    First, police are called to deal with situations and must respond. That is the very basic premise of policing and it has nothing to do with being in "command and control" or anything else, it's just their job. When police are called, they are oftentimes given very limited information and afforded very limited time to deal with the situation at hand. You cite the case of Kajieme Powell, and I'm glad you did. To me, this is the essence of real time decision making in the police officer's world.

    To my understanding, Mr. Powell had just stolen something from a local store and was reported to be acting erratically. Several calls were made to police about the theft and his actions. Officers arrived moments later to investigate. He was suspected of committing a theft, first and foremost, and he was apparently alarming and/or disturbing other citizens because they felt the need to call about his actions too. In real time, you then see the rest of the story play out. Powell sees the squad car, places his items on the ground, puts his hands in his pockets and begins to pace back and forth. These are signs police are trained to recognize, signs of aggression and hostility. The police arrived and were no doubt keyed up to those signs, and rightfully so, as Powell quickly pulls out a knife, disobeys orders to drop it and then advances toward the officer. All this happens very quickly, and you can see how much time the police have to react. Hopefully, you can appreciate that fact, as you pause and rewind the tape to dissect every minutia of the officers' actions. Why did they have to shoot him? Why did they shoot him so many times? Why didn't they use a Taser? Why weren't they his guardian? Why didn't they know he had a "psychiatric disability?" Without arguing the exact time, this all happens in a matter of 20 seconds or so in real time, right? One simple question for you – what would you expect the officers to do in that situation, in the real time allotted in the video?

    You offer these case examples in your article and you plead for "better police training;" however, you don't provide any real suggestions for what this training is? Shoot less bullets? Always Taser someone with small knives but not large knives? It's OK to shoot real bad guys but not ones with "psychiatric disabilities?" How do police know the difference in a matter of 20 seconds of less?

    One more critique I can offer is your attitude toward the threats faced by police officers. You mention that in only one of your case examples a "highly dangerous weapon – a combat knife" was used. Would you like to get hit in the head with a claw hammer or other blunt object? Are you willing to get stabbed with a 3 inch pocket knife? Do you think police officers should be willing to do this?

    Let's have a real discussion on the matter.

  3. David Perry says:

    "You have no real understanding…Let's have a real discussion."

    Your post does not suggest you have an open mind here.

    800 word articles cannot contain all things to all people. So yeah, I was defining a problem and not writing another 3000 words on police procedure. Fortunately, those words exist on other sites.

    For example, lately, I've been reading a lot about the Illinois model. Start here –

    Really good ideas from SWAT and CIT trained folks on how to do things better.

    Happy reading.

  4. Jeremy T says:

    I'm well aware of the Illinois model and have worked professionally with one of the developers of that dictum. No where in the Illinois Model does it pronounce that officers must needlessly place themselves into harms way. And I do have an open mind and would love to debate the facts. But I am frustrated over the recent and frequent dissection of police tactics and procedure by people that do not possess a full understanding of the facts or logic behind the actions of police officers.

    And your counter-post still doesn't answer any of my questions for you. You're an academic, so let's have an academic discussion.

    What do you think about my summary of the events surrounding Powell? What would you expect officers to do in that situation? What's a dangerous weapon to you; one worthy of getting shot over? Are you willing to get stabbed with a 3 inch pocket knife and do you think police officers should be willing to get stabbed in order to save the offender's life?

    I will make some further observations for you regarding Powell, based on my extensive real world experience and training. The officers likely arrived on scene and noticed that Powell was pacing with his hands in his pockets. Having already received the calls for the theft and erratic behavior, they had good reason to believe that Powell might be carrying a weapon, possibly a gun. You don't bring a Taser to a gunfight, so both officers dismounted from the vehicle with handguns at the ready. Powell then produced the knife and in a matter of only a few seconds, advanced toward the officer on the left of the screen.

    Maybe he didn't feel he had time to holster his handgun and retrieve his Taser, if he was even carrying one. Maybe he felt that he was without proper cover and had no place to retreat from an edged weapon. In the end, it doesn't really matter, because he was in fear for his life or of receiving great bodily harm, and that lawfully allows him to protect himself by using deadly force.

    Say what you will about the lawful justification, but when a citizen's attorney cites a statute or case law in order to justify his client's actions, then that is OK in the media. When police point out lawful justification for their actions, somehow that is not OK? Police feel the need to cite their lawful right because people generally don't understand what happens during real time decision making. These officers with Powell cannot pause, rewind or stop action and the Supreme Court recognizes that in landmark rulings where they cite the fact that "police officers must often make swift, spur-of-the-moment decisions while on patrol." Check out Tennessee v. Garner and Graham vs. Connor to get a better idea of the "objective reasonableness" standard, which shows that it's not subjective as to what the officer's intent might have been, rather it must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene at the time of the event.

    If you do nothing else to respond to this, please just answer me one thing. I am very interested in a lay person's take on the situation: What would you expect officers to do in that situation?

  5. David Perry says:

    Here's the thing – on my site, or any site really, when you start rude by declaring, "you have no real understanding," I no longer feel any obligation to talk to you or answer your questions. I'm glad your second post was more polite.

    Sadly, within a week or two, police will kill another person with psychiatric disabilities, and I'll be happy to hear your thoughts.

    I don't discount the vital importance of real world experience. I also know that being inside a bubble distorts perceptions as much as being outside it. For clarity, we must embrace multiple perspectives.

    Thank you for commenting. I'll look forward to seeing you in the future.

  6. Jeremy T says:

    I'm disappointed that you did not publish my final comments. I'm equally disappointed that, while you make inference in your original blog post for the need for urgent change in police training, citing the Powell case as a gross example of police mistreatment of persons with psychiatric disabilities, you cannot offer a single response to my questions. I appreciate the fact that you are in a bubble, but pick better cases to dissect that that one. I feel as though you cannot answer because you have never been threatened with an edged weapon during the course of your daily job duties, so you don't know how to respond. Or you agree that you would want to protect yourself from the knife, regardless if the person is completely sane or totally disabled. Because you know that for the sharp knife at the end of his hand, it doesn't matter. It will cut you the same way sir.

  7. David Perry says:

    Jeremy – I published every comment I saw. I'll go double check my comments queue though.

    I'm not answering your questions because you are rude. At such time as you cease to be rude, I'll be delighted to talk to you.

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