SWAT told Olathe police not to go in, body cams show. They did anyway and killed a woman

The law officers who shot and killed Ciara Howard in the laundry room of an Olathe house last August had been warned by their own SWAT teams: Going into the house to arrest the mentally distressed and likely armed 26-year-old on an outstanding warrant was not worth the risk.

Body camera footage obtained by The Star shows that the Olathe police and Johnson County deputies who staged around the house in a three-hour siege were fully briefed.

They knew that Howard’s troubled history was littered with only minor, nonviolent offenses marked by addiction and mental illness.

They knew her warrant was for walking away from the county’s adult residential center where she’d been required to report after her latest conviction.

They knew she was acting irrationally.

And they knew she had access to her boyfriend’s .45-caliber handgun.

“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 was heard on camera, relaying the word from Olathe and Johnson County that neither of their SWAT teams wanted to come and go in the house.

The sheriff himself said no, he reported.

“What are we going to do?” a frustrated Johnson County deputy asked. “Bail on it?”

The camera footage — more than 23 hours' worth — obtained after The Star filed a lawsuit against Olathe, reveals actions and inactions that troubled experts.

▪ At no time during the three hours were specially trained negotiators or mental health specialists ever called to the scene.

▪ The police put Howard’s boyfriend into an ill-fated role of negotiator, contrary to recommended police practice that discourages using family or friends in crisis negotiations.

▪ And despite many warnings against entering the home, police went in, putting lives at risk when waiting Howard out remained a safer option.

The footage shows a woman, not considered a danger to anyone before, becoming dangerous.

“It was a botched arrest,” said Delores Jones-Brown, a retired professor with New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

It is unclear “why they had to arrest in that way at that time,” she said. “Did the officers’ behavior escalate her behavior to the point she picked up the gun?”

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The Star dropped its lawsuit April 27 after receiving all the requested videos. This week, the Olathe Police Department declined a request for an interview with Chief Steven Menke. They asked The Star to submit questions but later provided a written statement that did little to answer them.

"The death of Ciara Howard was a tragedy for everyone involved," the department said. "It has impacted families, officers involved and the community."

Olathe noted that a multijurisdictional investigation reviewed by the Johnson County prosecutor determined the shooting was justified.

But the prosecutor's finding addressed only the threat the officers faced once they were in the house, Johnson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris McMullin said at the time. It did not address the tactics and decisions officers made to enter the house.

The Olathe police did not respond to questions from The Star about why commanders on the scene ultimately did not heed the SWAT team warnings that it was not worth the risk to go in.

Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden said his deputies were at the scene to back up Olathe police. He said he did not know why Olathe commanders ultimately decided to go in the house.

Officers went in — 10 in all — behind a ballistic shield, with a German shepherd barking on command, and their handguns leveled, stalking methodically through the small house, seemingly certain they could bring her out safely.

But everything that they’d been warned was possible was waiting ahead. Howard, distraught and defiant, would indeed have the gun.

“It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” said University of Texas at Dallas criminology professor Robert W. Taylor, speaking of the wrenching dilemmas that weigh on officers in standoffs.

The stakes are as high as the lives of the officers, the surrounding neighbors and, on this long August afternoon, Ciara Howard, who lost her life.

Olathe's statement said: "Howard chose to arm herself and point a gun at officers and a deputy. Those officers responded to that threat in protection of themselves and others. Sadly, Howard died as a result of her actions."

But the question Olathe officials refused to answer persists.

“I still don’t understand,” said Mark Arnold, the husband of Howard’s mother. “Why did they go in?”

Imagine that while you’re sleeping all of your problems are solved ...

The scripted phrase set up one of the essays Ciara Howard wrote while in counseling just weeks before she died.

“My mental state will be better,” she answered. “I will still know everything that I suffered” but will know everything is OK, she wrote, because “I’ve been sober, employed, court issues are resolved (and) my kids are with me full-time, all the kids.”

Howard’s mother, Kathy Arnold, pondered this, looking through her daughter’s writings nearly eight months after the fatal shooting.

Here on another sheet Ciara Howard had listed her strengths: “Gardening. Taking care of kids. Being a wife.”

Ciara Howard as a teenager in her high school basketball uniform (left) in Williamsburg, Kan. Howard as a fourth-grader poses in ballet class (right).

“She was this kind of kid ...” Kathy Arnold said, gathering up pictures from her daughter’s life — Ciara Howard as a teenager in her high school basketball uniform at Williamsburg, Kan., one of her on horseback, another performing at a piano recital, and then with her arms raised wide princess-like as a fourth-grader posing in ballet class.

“ And,” the mother added more softly, “bipolar.”

In those essays, Ciara Howard listed her challenges, too: “Addiction. Overcoming emotional losses. Mental instability.”

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.

She was never considered a danger to anyone. Judges always sentenced her to supervision or the adult residential center.

But her setbacks kept crippling her dreams.

She wrote letters last summer from the residential center, promising her sisters, nephews and nieces that she’d be home soon. She and her boyfriend were going to add on to his house to make more room for her boyfriend’s children and for her own 3-year-old daughter.

There’d be a Halloween party, she wrote. “Definitely a costume party.”

In the days before she failed to report back to the residential center, Howard lost her job at a convenience store. Then someone who knew of her arrest warrant — who didn’t want her in the boyfriend’s house — called 911.

Howard’s autopsy would show she had amphetamine and methamphetamine in her system.

This was the scene, some 45 minutes into the standoff outside the small house on Keeler Avenue.

Fifteen or more officers, many in black armored vests, some with rifles slung over their shoulders, clustered in small groups under a chorus of summer cicadas, coming to grips with news from their command: No one was going inside the house.

“The sheriff is not on board with it,” a county deputy said. That’s why the county tactical team was not coming.

The Olathe sergeant reported the same from his command. They had “unofficial orders of ‘We’re not going in,’ ” he said. They were going to “give it a little bit and see what happens.”

The officers’ reactions, gathered in the body camera footage, showed they felt in a bind.

“I don’t feel comfortable going in there,” one deputy said. “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.”


Others expressed frustration as the afternoon wore on.

“We know she’s in there,” one deputy said. “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.”

The deputy feared that leaving the scene would set a bad precedent.

“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.”

Going in the house or walking away were not the only options, experts said.

Sometimes “a tactical reassessment” is called for, said Kansas City Police Sgt. Sean Hess, head of the Crisis Intervention Team that specializes in engaging with people in mental distress.

He wasn’t commenting specifically on the Olathe standoff but generally on situations where there is a distressed and potentially armed person.

“You can wait them out,” he said, rotate in new shifts of officers if necessary, “as long as it takes.”

Kansas City police waited six hours before an assault suspect in south Kansas City surrendered last October, and police waited seven hours to arrest an armed Midtown man on a warrant in December.

The amount of time police should wait “is dynamic and changing,” said Taylor with the University of Texas at Dallas. Holding a position means tying up resources, limiting the ability to patrol or respond to other situations.

Every option means a gamble, said Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association.

That order they have in their hands — be it an arrest warrant, a search warrant or a protective order — “is tantamount to a judge saying, ‘Do this,’ ” Eells said. “They have a lawful duty.”

If they back off and the arrestee eludes them, he said, they have to consider the potential danger of the arrestee, possibly desperate, to the surrounding community and the liability that would follow.

They weigh that choice against the risk of death or injury in forcing an arrest.

“The way we are trained,” he said, “the expectation is to hedge our bets on what is safest for the community.”

Around 5 p.m., two hours into the standoff, some of the officers bantered about waiting Howard out, thinking it might be a long night.

“I heard Jimmy John’s delivers.”

“I’ve got a grill.”

“Maybe some lawn chairs?”

But the strategy of waiting would not last long.

Camera footage showed that commanders outside the house were aware that Howard had mental health difficulties, including “past suicide issues.”

Some 90 minutes into the standoff, Howard’s shouts from the house made the threat of suicide unmistakeable.

“I’m not afraid to die!” she shouted. “I’M READY!”

Howard shouted this at her boyfriend after he had been brought back near the house to try to talk her out, and to the Olathe sergeant who was with him.

It disturbed Jones-Brown with John Jay College that commanders on the scene used her boyfriend to negotiate her out.

They never called in a crisis negotiator.

Nor did they call in a mental health expert, even after her suicidal threats, to help calm the situation.

In its response to The Star's questions, the Olathe Police Department defended its negotiation tactics at the standoff.

"Those types of incidents are rightfully handled by trained police officers who put themselves in harm's way to work toward a peaceful resolution," Olathe said in the written comment.

Footage shows that throughout the afternoon, officers from different vantage points shouted into the house. Police dogs were prodded into menacing barking.

“They escalated a nonviolent offender to the state she became dangerous,” said Jones-Brown with John Jay College.

Putting a boyfriend in the role of a negotiator was an “unorthodox” decision, said Eells with the National Tactical Officers Association.

Use of family or friends is “discouraged,” he said, because of the emotions they might trigger, their unpredictability and the fact they lack the training that professional negotiators draw on to navigate crisis tension.

In this case, tension spiked between Howard and her boyfriend as she accused him of calling the cops on her.

And the Olathe sergeant warned her that the longer it went on, the longer she’d be in jail.

Howard rambled wildly about being “sick of doing f---ing time.”

As Howard’s distress was becoming more and more pronounced, the officers’ patience was wearing thinner.

Many systems came undone around Howard and her family structure, said Lora McDonald, executive director of MORE2, which has been taking a critical look at police shootings in the Kansas City area.

The mental health system struggled with her, she said. So did the criminal justice system. And, in the end, so did the officers attempting her arrest.

“There are so many things wrong in this whole thing,” McDonald said. “Going into the house puts them all at risk. If you have the discretion to save a life — yours or theirs — why wouldn’t you? If there is more risk to life if you go in, why go in?

“There is no way this young woman should die and we not give it our all to look at it.”

After 5 p.m., few of the deputies’ body cameras were still on. None of the footage obtained by The Star captured any conversations that show why commanders on the scene changed their minds about not going into the house.

"It's easy to arm-chair quarterback these things," Hayden, the Johnson County sheriff, said this week.

Hayden said he agreed with the county's SWAT team commander's decision not to send their SWAT team when he was consulted that afternoon.

"It did not feel appropriate to go in with that amount of force," Hayden said.

But after that, the county deputies on the scene were there in support of Olathe, and Hayden said he was not involved in any decisions to go in the house.

"I have no idea why it changed," he said. "We were there to back up Olathe. It is their city. Their call."

Shortly before 5:30 p.m., less than three hours after the first officers had arrived, the Olathe sergeant told Howard, “You’ve got five minutes, Ciara.”

The final half-hour of Howard’s life was underway.

Inside the house, camera footage showed the entry team’s methodical pace as lawmen worked their way from the front of the house.

The boyfriend continued with desperate pleas at the back, shouting to Howard, “Come to me, baby. ... The cops are coming. ... They look like they’re going to shoot you!”

Soon Howard was shouting with the officers, and the boyfriend could only listen.

“Ciara,” the Olathe sergeant shouted repeatedly, “I need you to come out, and I need you to come out now!”

Outside, in the lengthening afternoon light, calmness marked the voices of officers in an air of expectation that Howard would be brought out safely, arrested one more time.

One officer waiting with the boyfriend was heard asking him, lightly, “You don’t think she’s crazy enough to actually shoot at our officers, do you?”

The boyfriend hesitated.

“She is bipolar,” he said.

Out behind a county vehicle on the street, one deputy just arriving asked another why SWAT teams didn’t come.

She was answering — “I guess the thought process was it wasn’t worth getting somebody hurt for the felony warrants that we had" — when they heard a volley of gunshots.

“Oh, boy,” she said.

A radio voice barked, “Shots fired.”

Howard had slammed shut the door that stood between her and the crowd of lawmen massed outside the laundry room.

“You’re not real police!” she had shouted at them over and over.

And when the Olathe sergeant forced the door back open, she continued to shout at the officers, pointing at them with her right hand while she held the gun in her left, never firing it but never putting it down — 13 seconds of terror as the officers shouted in vain for her to drop it.

The three lawmen who’d wedged in through the door opened fire — the Olathe sergeant, a county deputy and another Olathe officer.

Their gunsmoke set off fire alarms, wailing over the traumatic scene.

The sergeant stumbled back against the wall, his face stunned. The other two officers worked to clear a path out the door. Everyone put on plastic gloves.

The county deputy struggled to drag Howard by the arms through the doorway.

“Breathe. Breathe, Ciara. Breathe,” he pleaded over her once he had dragged her into the next room.

All of the officers who had been inside the house were ordered out as others took over, tending to Howard’s body and securing what had become a shooting scene.

The three who fired ranged in different directions across the lawn, flashing by concerned officers who asked them whether they were OK.

A county deputy went to the vehicle where the boyfriend had been sequestered. The boyfriend wiped at his eyes.

“You don’t know if she’s dead?” he asked. “Did she shoot at them? I just heard a bunch of gunshots.”

The deputy tried to console him.

“I am sorry you had to hear that,” she said. “I am so sorry.”

Nobody wanted it to end this way, Sheriff Hayden said.

Howard grave front.jpg
Ciara Howard of Olathe was buried in the tiny Mount Hope Cemetery outside of Williamsburg in a barren grave, her family unable to provide a headstone, her place marked by a small metal-framed sign barely larger than an index card. She was shot by police in August. Joe Robertson The Kansas City Star

Ciara Howard would be buried in the tiny Mount Hope Cemetery outside of Williamsburg in a barren grave, her family unable to provide a headstone, her place marked by a small metal-framed sign barely larger than an index card.

"It's a tragic situation for everyone involved," Hayden said. "It is sad for the family. It is sad for the officers involved. Our hearts go out to them."

Moments after the shooting, the Olathe sergeant, breathing hard, fell to a seat at the base of a tree, his face filled with distress.

“Goddamn it. I could see her hands,” he said.

“You’re OK,” said an officer bending over him.

The county deputy who had pulled Howard’s body from the room came to a stop in the yard next door, standing as he wiped at his arms with alcohol paper towels.

“What do you need? Anything else?” he was asked.

The deputy didn’t look up. He threw a wadded paper towel to the ground as he answered: “A f---ing do-over?”