Ciara Howard’s last act of defiance was slamming closed the laundry room door that stood between her and an arsenal of officers determined to arrest her one more time.
Suddenly, in chilling body camera footage obtained after The Star filed a lawsuit, the lead Olathe police officer forced the door open and three-plus hours of standoff came to a deadly end for an emotionally troubled 26-year-old woman with a history of nothing but small, nonviolent crimes.
For 13 harrowing seconds, Howard stood shouting and trembling in the small room with a gun in her hand, waving it aimlessly at first but at times clearly pointing it at officers who screamed at her to drop the weapon.
The officers opened fire and Howard pitched forward, falling dead on the concrete floor.
Two Olathe officers and a Johnson County deputy sheriff shot Howard in the Aug. 23 confrontation, and a review by the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office determined the shooting was justified.
But family members who have seen the video are anguished by decisions police made to even enter the house, knowing Howard was alone, emotionally disturbed and had a handgun with her.
Her crime was that she had not returned to a residential center as required under her probation; she had been charged with a felony of escape. A call two days later to 911 tipped police that she was at her boyfriend’s house. Distraught friends and family say she was a threat to no one.
“Ciara was the only person in danger,” her mother, Kathy Arnold, said.
The ruling of a justified shooting did not address the police decisions to enter the house, Johnson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris McMullin told The Star at the time of the ruling.
“I’m a prosecutor, not a police tactician,” McMullin said. “Our sole determination is (to assess) were their actions justified under Kansas law. … We don’t ask, in the spectrum of options police have, did they choose the best course of action.”
The Star sued the city of Olathe for body camera footage last month, and the city released this footage to The Star late Tuesday.
The Olathe Police Department through a spokesman said it could not comment on the video or the officers’ actions Aug. 23, because that litigation is still pending.
The video, recorded by a camera worn by the Johnson County deputy, shows how a large team of officers moved in on Howard through the small Olathe home over the course of some 25 minutes.
Multiple officers and vehicles had surrounded the house for some three hours before the team decided to enter the home with a police dog. Howard was in a closed room at the back of the house.
“Ciara! I need you to go out the back door and I need you to do it now!” the lead Olathe officer shouted repeatedly inside the house.
As officers slowly made their way to the back of the house, the lead officer threatened many times that they would release the dog, which barked at its handler’s command.
Howard’s shouts back to officers were hard to hear, often confusing, but revealed her fear of having to spend time in the county jail.
Near the end, she cracked open the door and barked back at the police dog.
“It seemed like she was almost delusional,” said Arnold’s husband, Mark Arnold, who viewed the footage. “She was more like a scared little girl than someone ready to shoot a police officer.”
Eventually, the officers were standing right outside the door. Howard cursed them and slammed it shut. The lead officer immediately forced it open and barged in. Howard, screaming that they weren’t real cops, never lowered the gun until she was shot.
Officers, in stunned voices, called for medical help. The Johnson County deputy put on gloves and dragged Howard into the hallway. He is heard pleading, “Breathe. Breathe, Ciara. Breathe.” But another officer standing over her recognizes, “She’s gone.”
Howard had a history of minor offenses that she frequently compounded by failing to follow court directives. But court officials always treated her as a non-violent offender, placing her under supervision in community settings — urging her to get help for substance abuse concerns and mental health issues.
Howard was emotionally disturbed in her final days, her mother said, but Howard also believed she had a chance to make things better. In letters to Arnold, Howard shared her plans to marry her boyfriend, build on to their house, find a new job and go back to school again.
“But she discourages so easily,” Kathy Arnold said.
Howard had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Arnold said, though that may have not been known to the officers.
Advocates for people with mental health concerns have been working with law enforcement in developing protocols to de-escalate confrontations when police encounter someone who is emotionally disturbed.
When such a confrontation turns violent, there are reasonable questions, said Rick Cagan, the executive director of the Kansas office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“If there is some doubt (about forcing an arrest), what is the hurry?” he said. “Why do we have to serve a warrant now? We ought to look at protective measures to keep this from happening.”
Howard had recently lost her job at a convenience store shortly before she failed to report back to Johnson County’s Adult Residential Center. A warrant was issued for her arrest Aug. 21 because she had violated the conditions of her probation.
She was completing a sentence for theft and obstruction from an arrest in July 2016 after Howard drove away in an acquaintance’s car from her mother’s home after an argument, and then abandoned the car and ran off when police tried to stop her.
In other cases — from domestic fights with her mother, or driving on a suspended driver’s license — she at times failed to comply with court orders and had warrants issued for her arrest, records show. Eventually the law caught up with her and she tried again to set things right for herself and her 3-year-old daughter, her family said.
“Why couldn’t they have waited?” Mark Arnold said. “If they’d packed up and gone home — left a couple of cars on the street — they probably could’ve picked her up an hour later going to the store to get cigarettes.
“…and she’d still be alive.”