The police officers approached, scanning the car lot. Blue Earth County Dispatch had received quite a few 911 calls about a woman—clearly under some sort of influence—jumping in and out of vehicles. At least one caller noted that she seemed “happy.”
It was 1:30 p.m.—broad daylight, nothing narrow or furtive about it. The officers saw a gold Pontiac SUV with its door open, engine idling in neutral. Then they saw bare feet sticking out of the backseat window of a Chevy Silverado truck parked there for repairs.
When they reached the Silverado, they heard moans and nonsensical babble. Inside, a woman, stark naked and high on meth, was pleasuring herself. Diligently.
She continued for the next hour, her hand motions interspersed with remarks to people who were not there. The officers checked both her Pontiac and the Silverado she had borrowed for ambience but never did find her clothes. After phoning for emergency medical services, they spent the next hour negotiating with her, trying to get her to, er, stop what she was doing and exit the vehicle (whose owner was about to receive an interesting phone call).
Confronted with a woman who was clearly not rational, the officers of Mankato, Minnesota, took their time (I hope out of concern and not voyeurism) and did not overreact, yelling, threatening, or trying to drag her from the vehicle. No one was hurt, and the woman was taken into custody and transported to a detox center.
I did not know whether to laugh or cry. Not because the situation was so silly, but because the way she was treated is so rare.
I am from a city whose police force is responsible for more killings per capita than any other police force in a large U.S. city. ArchCity Defenders reports that from 2009 until 2019, police in St. Louis city and county and Jefferson and St. Charles counties killed 132 people—and forty-seven more died in police custody in jail. One man was pushed down the stairs so hard, the fall killed him.
Seventy-two percent of those killed were Black. They ranged in age from twelve to sixty-eight. Nearly all (ninety-two percent) were male. Looking back through the fatalities, though, I do see a Black female: In August 2010, Lashonda White and her partner took their two kids to a Family Dollar store to buy fabric softener and detergent. When they left, someone called 911, alleging that they had stolen $40.50 worth of laundry products. The police gave chase, and White died in the resulting car crash, leaving two young children without a mother. She was thirty-five years old.
Isaiah Hammet was killed during a no-knock warrant search. When a SWAT team tossed a flash-bang into his house, Hammet, who was home taking care of his grandfather, allegedly grabbed a gun and fired in their direction. His grandfather later told police that Hammet came into his room, yelled that somebody was breaking in, and moved him from the bed to the floor for safety’s sake.
Hammet was twenty-one years old. Members of the SWAT team said they had information suggesting he was a gang member and homicide suspect. His criminal record consisted of a misdemeanor for marijuana possession. The SWAT team fired more than 100 shots at him; bullet holes indicated no return fire. The search was organized as a surprise, no-knock search, the police department’s Force Investigation Unit was told, because Hammet “was the recent victim of some shootings and was probably going to be paranoid.”
A SWAT raid that starts with a flash-bang seems like the perfect way to deal with someone who might be paranoid.
Another death that is hard to forget is that of Kajieme Powell. He had stolen a snack and two energy drinks from a convenience store, and he bristled when confronted. He was carrying a knife and appeared to be suffering an acute episode of mental illness. When police arrived, he was pacing up and down the sidewalk outside the store. Within fifteen seconds of their arrival, according to a bystander’s cellphone video, police opened fire. The police chief at the time, Sam Dodson, told reporters that Powell raised the knife over his head, but video evidence contradicts that claim. The officers’ justification was that Powell was coming toward them. The speed at which he was moving was disputed, but he was indeed yelling; he was begging the officers to shoot him.
And so they did. Each officer fired six shots. Two were fired after he was on the ground, because he was not yet dead and his body rolled down sloped ground in their direction.
They had not tried to use a Taser, they said, because he was wearing baggy clothes and it might not have been effective. (Tasers can penetrate clothing, even heavy jackets, but loose clothes can increase the risk that both electrodes will not land.) No real attempt was made to calm Powell. The officers claimed they were in immediate danger, yet they had not taken shelter behind their police car; instead, they had come out in front of it, possibly provoking him.
The police officers in Mankato spent a solid hour “negotiating” with a woman high on meth while they waited for emergency medical care for her.
Within thirty seconds of arriving on the scene, two trained St. Louis police officers, confronting a young man who was clearly not in his right mind, had killed him.
The most powerful variable here is fear. The woman in Mankato may have been high on a substance that can cause erratic and violent behavior, but she seemed happy and absorbed in her own pleasure, and one look told the officers they did not have to worry about a concealed weapon. As a result, their behavior kept the situation calm. Had they gotten rough with her and tried to forcibly remove her from the truck, who knows how fast her mood could have changed or what, high on meth, she might have been capable of doing.
The inextricable variable, though, is race.
If Kajieme Powell, a young Black male, had been pacing naked with no knife visible, and he moved toward the officers yelling, I hope they would have reacted with the same patience and concern. But in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks was just drunk and sleeping it off in his car when police started to hassle him, and when he resisted being cuffed and ran away, they shot him dead.
White women are given the benefit of the doubt more often than any other group.
Statistically, men are more likely to commit violent crimes. But the problem with statistics is that they bias us in advance—and that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Police violence is now a leading cause of death for young men in the United States. “Black suspects are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than are persons of other racial or ethnic groups,” notes a paper by Columbia Law School profs, “even when there are no other obvious circumstances during the encounter that would make the use of deadly force reasonable.” Black women, American Indian and Alaska Native women and men, and Latinx men are also significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Could one reason be the way they are approached?
Police officers risk their lives daily, and fear makes it easy to overreact, and that triggers a lot of unnecessary violence, much of which endangers law enforcement officers. Twice as many die in no-knock searches as in standard searches. They are going in scared—and excited, and charged up with a sense of power. Adrenaline runs high—and so does the chance of injury, death, and wasted effort. All too often, these searches yield nothing of significance.
A task force set up by the Council on Criminal Justice found that “jurisdictions should prohibit or severely restrict the use of no-knock warrants and unannounced police raids. Even when well-planned and orchestrated through the collection and assessment of detailed intelligence, they can be dangerous to occupants and officers.” Restrict them to hostage situations and terrorist activities, the task force urged.
The woman in Mankato wound up with a list of misdemeanor charges, but she was kept safe and cared for while she detoxed. In cases that are less titillating and more dangerous, police might need extra Kevlar, more support, better training, and more creative strategies, so they can be peace officers primed to look out for people of all races and genders rather than cowboys primed to kill in certain categories.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.