ST. LOUIS – Almost immediately after two police officers shot and killed an African-American man here, local authorities described the event as an act of self-defense. The victim, they said, had brandished a knife in a threatening manner.
At a press conference shortly after the Tuesday shooting, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson gave the impression that the victim, later identified as 25-year-old Kajieme Powell, had charged at police, ready to stab. “Officer safety is the No. 1 issue,” he said. “Every police officer that’s out here has the right to defend themselves and the community.”
But in a newly released cell-phone video taken by an eyewitness at the scene and distributed by the St. Louis police, Powell is seen lumbering – not lunging. As he walks toward police officers, in broad daylight and on a relatively quiet street, he doesn’t seem to be the one threatening. In fact, he can be heard telling the officers, “Shoot me now, kill me now.” It is not possible to discern in the video whether Powell is armed though police can be heard warning him to “drop the knife.” They then opened fire, shooting at him at least eight times.
Powell’s death came 10 days after and 3 miles away from Michael Brown’s – the 18-year-old unarmed black youth who was shot to death by a police officer in nearby Ferguson. The two incidents were unrelated but not dissimilar. Both shootings took place in the middle of the day, shortly after each victim allegedly had taken an item from a local convenience store without paying. Both victims were young African-American men killed at the hand of white police officers in neighborhoods were blacks represent the majority of the residents.
Yet the response in St. Louis – even after the video shed new light on the circumstances around Powell’s death - stands in stark contrast to what transpired in Ferguson.
The day of Powell’s shooting, St. Louis resident Michael Williams said he was driving when he saw police with their guns raised. Powell “was walking like something was wrong with him,” Williams told msnbc, adding that the victim’s hands were clearly at his side when he was shot.
“I don’t think he was a threat,” Williams told msnbc in a second interview Thursday, after the video became public. “He wasn’t waving no knife.”
Williams wasn’t the only eyewitness that day who failed to see a weapon. And with tensions so high in neighboring Ferguson, stemming in large part of the aggressive police response in the days after Brown’s death, many anticipated an angry outcry from a distrustful community.
It didn’t happen, perhaps because of the radically different police response.
In Ferguson, police left Brown’s body in the street for hours after he was killed Aug. 9 and authorities there have yet to reveal details from the shooting. In St. Louis, Dotson alerted the public to the shooting on Twitter and was at the scene within an hour, addressing reporters, many of whom had rushed from Ferguson. The facts he offered about Powell – that had a knife, that he was threatening police – were preliminary but that didn’t stop his department form releasing the video casting his initial report in a less favorable light.
On Thursday, with calm finally settling into Ferguson, residents in the St. Louis neighborhood where Powell was shot were learning about the new video. There was no sign of violence but neighbors are worried.
“It’s dangerous over here,” said the storekeeper of Six Star Market, where Powell allegedly took pastries without paying. ”We’ve got to alleviate the tensions.” The owners had received threats to their shop after Powell’s death, he said, a warning after looters ravaged and burned storefronts in Ferguson in the wake of Brown’s killing.
But just as Ferguson residents later barricaded other storefronts to prevent looters from going inside, his store too attracted volunteer guards. “The people who live in our area, they protect us,” he said. Still, he was unwilling to give his name in light of the threats.