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Combative aldermen question St. Louis police chief about use of deadly force

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ST. LOUIS • They projected the death sequence over and over on the white marble wall of City Hall’s rotunda.

First, Kajieme Powell, 25, who police allege was holding a knife, walks toward two officers. He steps closer. Police unload six shots each as Powell’s body falls to the ground.

The rapid pop of gunfire echoed throughout City Hall all day Wednesday as protesters showed the video on a loop, aiming to draw the attention of city aldermen holding a public safety hearing on the use of force by police.

Police Chief Sam Dotson addressed the often combative aldermanic public safety committee for about three hours. He outlined his department’s policy on the use of force in the wake of the Powell shooting and the crisis in neighboring Ferguson, cautioning the politicians that “police officers are human.”

Protesters packed the room, some holding up signs reading: “WANTED: Police retrained to protect and serve.” Many of them later expressed frustration that Dotson didn’t stay for the public input portion of the hearing.

While he was there, Dotson told the aldermen that when he responded to the Powell shooting scene Aug. 19 he was thinking about the crisis in Ferguson after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9. Dotson said that he worked with his department to swiftly investigate the facts and circumstances of the Powell shooting and provide critical details to the public.

But he also pledged change.

The department, he said, will seek about $1 million from City Hall to outfit 900 officers with body cameras to record their interactions with civilians. They are also working on the formation of a citizen review board. In addition, Dotson said all police-involved shootings will go before the city’s circuit attorney for review.

He has also announced a new team of investigators dedicated to examining deadly force cases. The new “Force Investigative Unit” will have four detectives and be led by Sgt. Roger Engelhardt, a former city homicide detective.

Dotson told aldermen that there have been six police-involved shootings this year — two of them fatal.

Dotson said the new unit will be separate from the homicide and internal affairs divisions. Yet, some aldermen questioned whether the department can be impartial when investigating its own. That’s why Dotson said he is including other agencies in the review process.

“We are moving,” Dotson said. “We are as progressive of an agency you will find.”

At times, the questioning turned heated.

Alderman Antonio French, 21st Ward, questioned the use of deadly force by police officers, saying that the power to take a life should be examined.

“It is our responsibility to review if we want to give you guys that kind of power,” French said.

Dotson responded that reasonable deadly force is a right granted under the U.S. Constitution and upheld by Supreme Court rulings. He said any discussion about taking away that power was a “broader discussion” required by the nation as a whole, not just in St. Louis or Missouri.

The department’s use of deadly force policy states: “Officers will use the least amount of force reasonably necessary to accomplish their lawful objectives while safeguarding their own lives and the lives of others. Deadly force will be a last resort, and will only be exercised when all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or appear impractical.”

Dotson said there were many misconceptions, primarily fueled by television crime dramas, about when and how police use force.

“We don’t do warning shots or trick shots for the hands or knees,” Dotson said. “It’s not like TV.”

He added: “We train officers to stop the aggression. You can be shot in the arm and continue to shoot.”

While discussing the Powell shooting, Alderman Chris Carter, 27th Ward, accused Dotson of lying to him about the facts of the incident in an attempt to quell building unrest the day of the shooting. Carter said Dotson told him information about Powell’s shooting that didn’t match the video of the incident later released by police.

“I believe you did that because you knew that we would calm that crowd,” Carter said. “I believe that we were duped into calming that crowd. I think you owe us a huge apology.”

Dotson, with his normally calm voice raised, denied the accusation, saying that he didn’t immediately have the video and that unfolding events were much like a replay call during a football game where the play on the field looks different after video review.

“What I knew at the time, was what I told you at the time,” Dotson said. “I’m actually offended that you think I would lie to you and use you.”

Carter snapped back: “This is not a football game. This is real life.”

Dotson said he couldn’t discuss the specifics of the Powell shooting because it was still under investigation.

Powell was pacing and muttering after taking items from the Six Stars Market, 8701 Riverview Boulevard, on Aug. 19, according to witnesses. When police arrived, they said Powell urged them to shoot and approached them with the knife. Two officers fired 12 shots that killed Powell.

Dotson said that in general the standard is that within 21 feet, an edged weapon is considered deadly.

Police have not released the name of the officers who shot Powell. That shooting — with two white officers fatally shooting a black man — prompted outrage from many residents who spoke at a public input session before the aldermen on Wednesday afternoon.

Elizabeth Vega, of St. Louis, addressed the aldermen and worried that police were too quick to pull the trigger. “The police gave him 30 seconds of consideration,” Vega said of Powell. “And I’m telling this board now, not only should we be better, but we need to do better quick.”

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Nicholas J.C. Pistor is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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