Olathe, Kansas – After a local newspaper filed a lawsuit, police were forced to release more than 23 hours of body camera footage, which showed officers ignoring orders to stand down and forcing their way into a house where they killed a mentally ill woman in a display of force that has left many with questions.
Ciara Howard, 26, was shot and killed by police in August 2017, and when a portion of the body camera footage was released, it showed her standing in her laundry room, waving a handgun at officers while they screamed at her to drop the weapon. She did not comply, and the officers opened fire, shooting and killing her.
The first release of the footage made it look as though the officers may have been justified in taking Howard’s life—clearly, she was pointing a gun directly at them when they began shooting. But there is much more to the story, and a lawsuit filed by the Kansas City Star has resulted in the release of footage that shows the officers disobeying orders and choosing to use excessive force.
Howard was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and she had a history of addiction, both of which sent her into a downward spiral with the law that she failed to recover from. As the Star reported, “At times when she slipped, she incurred criminal charges. Intoxicated conflicts with her mother led to arrests. Then, when she failed to meet court requirements—missing appearances, shunning substance abuse classes—more charges came.”
The confrontation began on an afternoon when Howard was at her boyfriend’s house and someone who wanted her to leave, reported her to police. The officers who responded to the call were warned that Howard had a history of mental health issues, yet there was no one present who was trained to deal with mental illness. In fact, the only person they attempted to use as a negotiator was Howard’s boyfriend, which is strictly against police protocol for crisis negotiations.
The 3-hour standoff was excessive and negligent from the moment it started, as a team of officers surrounded the house in their attempt to arrest a woman who did not have a violent past. In addition to mental illness, Howard’s record showed a pattern of addiction, and the reason she was being arrested was that she left the county’s adult residential center and failed to report her latest conviction.
However, Howard had never been convicted of a violent offense, and while she did have access to her boyfriend’s handgun in the house, the officers knew that because she was mentally ill, the only thing that would send her over the edge and make her become violent was if she was cornered and felt directly threatened.
The Kansas City Star reported that the officers on the scene knew Howard was mentally distressed and acting irrationally, and they were warned by their own SWAT teams that the standoff was not worth the risk.
“It’s not worth getting into a shootout and hurting an officer or hurting her over the type of warrants that we have,” a commander on the scene can be heard saying on the body camera footage. He noted that the sheriff and the SWAT teams from Olathe and Johnson County were all against raiding the house.
But the officers on the scene ignored orders and appeared to think that even though they did not have the help of trained negotiators or mental health specialists, the three hours they had wasted on the endeavor should result in an arrest. A deputy from Johnson County can be heard saying, “What are we going to do? Bail on it?”
“We know she’s in there. She’s got warrants—felony warrants—and we’re going to walk away? Something in my head is not computing with this. We’ve got frickin’ 15 of us here,” another deputy said.
Yet another deputy questioned how walking away would make the officers look publicly. “That word is going to get out if we walk away amongst all of them,” she said. “They’re going to frickin’ barricade up with a weapon and we’re going to keep walking away.”
One deputy who actually seemed to understand that entering the house could result in loss of life, told his fellow officers, “I don’t feel comfortable going in there. Obviously the frickin’ last thing I want is to go in there and get someone hurt and have her end up dead in the process.”
When the officers used Howard’s boyfriend to attempt to negotiate with her, she became even more agitated, and about halfway through the standoff, she was heard yelling, “I’m not afraid to die! I’M READY!”
As the standoff wore on, several of the officers began to turn off their body cameras, and the report from the Star noted that none of the footage it obtained “captured any conversations that show why commanders on the scene changed their minds about not going into the house.”
When the officers did decide to go into the house, they were the ones who escalated the situation. After nearly three hours on the scene, an Olathe Police sergeant told Howard, “You’ve got five minutes, Ciara.”
A total of 10 officers—armed themselves with ballistic shields and firearms—and a barking German Shepard, entered the house. Howard’s boyfriend continued to plead with her, yelling, “Come to me, baby … The cops are coming … They look like they’re going to shoot you!”
Just 13 seconds elapsed from the moment three officers forced their way into the laundry room and encountered Howard until the moment all three opened fire. They had to have known that being cornered by officers who were armed to the teeth and screaming at her, would only increase Howard’s mentally distressed state, which would discourage her from dropping the gun in her hand.
Howard was essentially killed by police because they were in a hurry.
Not surprisingly, the shooting was ruled “justified.” However, the details surrounding it has left many wondering why police would employ so much force in such a case, and why they pushed a mentally ill, nonviolent offender to the point where she became violent, in order to justify killing her.
As The Free Thought Project has reported, individuals who suffer from mental health issues have a 1,600% higher chance of being killed by police. This can be explained by the fact that most officers receive extensive training on how to accurately shoot their weapons, but very little training on de-escalation tactics or methods for dealing with the mentally ill.
Ciara Howard’s 3-year-old daughter will now be forced to grow up without a mother, and this is yet another case that shows the tragic inability of police officers to handle mentally ill suspects, and the desperate need for more mental health training.