Johnson County law enforcement officers had nearly three hours and plenty of policing best practices to help them avoid a tragic outcome in an encounter with 26-year-old Ciara Howard.
They shot her dead anyway.
This was not a fast-moving siege where all of the decisions had to be made in a split second. Rather, this was a slow-rolling disaster.
On the scene, the officers’ words and thoughts, revealed in body camera footage and a Kansas City Star investigation, show a series of missteps and missed opportunities to defuse rather than escalate the situation. What was learned is deeply disturbing.
Olathe police, backed up by Johnson County sheriff’s deputies, went to the home to serve Howard a warrant.
The shooting by two officers and one deputy was ruled justified by the county prosecutor. Legally, the danger that officers face at the moment they decide to fire, is assessed. Body camera footage showed that Howard had a gun in her hand when officers confronted her in a laundry room at the house.
But yet, every moment of the nearly three-hour standoff that preceded the fatal shots should be considered. Officers bypassed opportunities to de-escalate and wait, increasing the chances that shots would have to be fired. They failed to follow protocols for the mentally ill and discounted the advice of specially trained tactical squads.
Poor decision after poor decision led to this deadly conclusion.
Two SWAT teams advised against entering the house. The units declined to respond, believing that it wasn’t worth the risk. Someone could get shot — Howard, an officer, or both.
That advice was ignored.
The Johnson County sheriff relayed to his deputies that he opposed entering the home, citing the same concerns.
His advice was ignored.
Howard’s crime was walking away from a residential treatment center. She wasn’t a violent criminal. She was suffering from a mental illness and struggling with addiction.
In such instances, especially with the luxury of time, police often call for the assistance of mental health experts who routinely work with law enforcement. Their advice wasn’t sought. Nor was a trained crisis negotiator requested.
Instead, police turned to Howard’s boyfriend, using him to try and coax her out of the home. Relatives and friends are not trained experts. And it’s ethically questionable to ask them to intervene.
Finally, an ultimatum was given. Howard had five minutes or officers would come in with a dog and drag her out. The fatal shots were fired soon after.
An internal investigation by unbiased outside experts should be undertaken to determine why officers felt emboldened to act, taking Howard’s life when chances for a different outcome were squandered.
In a heartbreaking and telling lament, a Johnson County deputy wished for “a f—ing do-over” after Howard was shot dead. There will be no do-over for Howard’s family. But local law enforcement agencies must ensure that these mistakes are not repeated.