The law enforcement officers who fired fatal shots at 26-year-old Ciara Howard in a rear room of an Olathe home Aug. 23 were justified in using lethal force, the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday.
The officers, the only surviving witnesses to what happened inside the home, said Howard pointed a .45-caliber handgun at them, investigators said.
But what troubles the boyfriend — who tried to help police talk the troubled woman out of the house that afternoon — is the way officers forced themselves with their guns and dogs into the crisis.
“Why did they have to go in?” Larry Sumners wondered aloud to The Star. “There was no one else in the house. There were no hostages or anything.”
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A swarm of Olathe officers and Johnson County sheriff’s deputies had surrounded the home for several hours, trying to arrest Howard who had a pending charge of aggravated escape.
At one point, Sumners said, the officers asked him to warn Howard that she had five minutes to come out. They were aware she had a gun, Sumners said, and it should have been apparent by the way Howard was talking and behaving that she was in a mental health crisis, he said.
“She was scared to come out,” he said Monday, while sitting on the front porch of the house where Howard was killed. “Why did they have to jump the gun? Why not call mental health officers? Why not wait her out?”
Howard, who had a 3-year-old daughter, had been on probation in a 2016 case in Johnson County in which she pleaded guilty to felony theft and interference with a law enforcement officer, according to court documents.
In December, she was sentenced to 13 months in jail but was granted probation, according to court documents.
The district attorney’s findings, based on an investigation by the Johnson County Multi-jurisdictional Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Team, did not address the tactics and decisions officers made to enter the house, said Johnson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris McMullin.
“I’m a prosecutor, not a police tactician,” McMullin said. “Our sole determination is (to assess) were their actions justified under Kansas law.”
The investigation determined that the officers had a reason to arrest Howard, and they were legally inside the house, McMullin said. And the findings were that the three officers who fired their guns were presented with a lethal threat and responded as other reasonable officers would have in the same situation.
“It sounds clinical, but that’s what the U.S. Supreme Court tells us to do,” McMullin said. “We don’t ask, in the spectrum of options police have, did they choose the best course of action?”
Howard had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, her mother, Kathy Arnold, told The Star.
Arnold would not be allowed into the house for three days, but when she went in, she said, she went to the room still stained in Howard’s blood and counted the bullet holes. She counted nine.
Howard was supposed to have returned to Johnson County’s Adult Residential Center Probation Program, but apparently was missing, Arnold said, because authorities had called Arnold looking for her.
It was clear, Arnold said, that she feared going back to the Johnson County jail.
“This was a young girl that had mental issues,” she said. “It didn’t have to get to this point. She was (wanted for) a misdemeanor warrant.”
Any encounter where police use lethal force is investigated internally, said Olathe Police spokesman Sgt. Logan Bonney.
The shooting of Howard remains under investigation, he said, and he could not discuss the tactics police used or the decisions that were made that day, he said.
Two Olathe officers and a Johnson County sheriff’s deputy who fired shots had been placed on administrative leave after the shooting. The Olathe officers were returned to active duty Sept. 1, Bonney said.
He said he also could not discuss whatever efforts were made, or not made, to react to Howard’s mental health conditions that afternoon.
Sumners said Howard was in an anxious state that should have been obvious to police. While inside the house she was shouting erratically, at times repeating back verbatim what Sumners and police were calling out to her from outside.
Bonney said, overall, between 40 and 50 percent of Olathe’s patrol officers have undergone crisis intervention training to learn skills in de-escalating encounters with people in a mental health crisis. Between 60 and 70 percent have been trained in mental health first aid for first responders.
“We still have an internal investigation,” Bonney said, “and we will continue to evaluate our tactics.”
The police arrived sometime around 2 p.m. on Aug. 23 in the 100 block of South Keeler Street. Sumners said he answered the door and stepped outside to talk with the officers. Howard refused to come out, he said. For a while Sumners was kept in the back seat of one of the police cars, he said, but after a while he was asked if he could help encourage her to come out of the house.
He tried, but at one point “she started just repeating everything everyone was saying.” Sometime before 6 p.m., Sumners said he was told, “She’s got five minutes.”
“I pleaded with her,” he said.
Then a team of officers went in, behind a shield and with dogs.
“I heard a commotion, dogs barking, and guns shots,” Sumners said. “Then they ran me away.”
A friend of Howard’s, Mandy Carter, wrote about her in a GoFundMe webpage for funeral expenses, saying, “Ciara was young, and had a good heart. She loved life and her family.”
Her mother wondered, “Do they know she was an honor roll student (in high school)? Do they know she was in band? She was an accomplished pianist. She could play anything you put in front of her.”
“She had problems,” Arnold said. “But she was wanting to get away from it and start her life with Larry and her daughter.”
She was dealing with many difficulties, Sumners said. But they were hoping to see their way through it together.
She was buried Sept. 1 at the Mt. Hope Cemetery in Williamsburg, Kan.