The shooting of Daunte Wright

And some thoughts on policing.
Isaac Saul Apr 13, 2021
This is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, non-partisan politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from the right and left, then my take. Today’s newsletter is a special edition. If someone forwarded you this email they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

To begin, let’s get a few things out of the way.

First, today’s newsletter is not your typical edition of Tangle. So if you’re new around here, I apologize — I do this sometimes when I just want to write. If you want to see the usual Tangle format, you can check out yesterday’s edition on expanding the Supreme Court (relatedly: it looks like yesterday’s email went to some people’s junk folders, so if you didn’t see it, just search “Tangle” in your inbox then mark it as important).

Second, I want to state an obvious point: policing seems like a difficult job. I’ve never been a police officer. My only experiences with cops are the ones I have from being a citizen, like getting pulled over while driving, getting arrested for underage drinking, getting badgered in New York, or pressing them for quotes or access as a reporter. When I lived in Harlem, I tried repeatedly to join a ride-a-long with the NYPD as a reporter, but never got accepted. I’ve got several friends who are cops. As with any profession, some seem like great people. Some don’t.

Third, I won’t be linking to the video of Daunte Wright. I’ve watched it several times, and now I cannot watch it anymore. Many people of color are exhausted by constantly having footage of people who look like them being killed thrust in front of their faces. I can tell you what happens, though: the video shows Wright being pulled over, taken out of his car, and having his hands put behind his back. Everything looks normal. He begins to resist, pulling his hands away from the handcuffs. There is inaudible yelling and chatter, the police press him against the car, he gets his hands free and slides back into the driver’s seat, an officer yells “taser” several times, then she pulls the trigger.

It’s not a taser. “Holy shit, I just shot him,” she says.

Wright drives off. He crashes the car a few blocks away from where he was shot. He would subsequently die from the bullet wound (his girlfriend, who was in the passenger seat, is recovering from the accident).

Here’s what we know about the things leading up to the traffic stop: Wright called his mom while he was stopped and told her he had been pulled over for having air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror. It appears officers ran his information when they saw his registration had expired. They discovered a warrant for his arrest (he was facing a misdemeanor charge for carrying a pistol without a permit and running from police in June). It looks as if he had deferred payments on those charges and a petty misdemeanor for marijuana possession, both of which he incurred during the pandemic. He had also missed a remote court appearance.

Wright was 20 years old. His parents say he had a learning disability and dropped out of school two years ago. He was working in the fast food and retail industry to support his two-year-old son and was trying to go back to school in order to get his GED.

In 2020, about 1,127 people were killed by police in the U.S. The rates of police violence have been similar since 2013, though ticking down slightly. Your odds of having a violent interaction with a police officer change dramatically based on what state you are in and what you look like. You’re five times more likely to be shot by a cop in Oklahoma than in Georgia. Men are far more likely than women to be victims of police brutality and/or killing. Black men are far more likely than White men to be victims, and Hispanic men are only slightly less likely to be victims than are Black men. That’s just the raw data, and it’s not “just because Black people are committing more crime or resist arrest more frequently.” In situations where someone poses “little or no threat” to an officer, a Black person is still three times more likely to be killed than a White person is.

There are a number of potential reasons for this, but one of the most likely is unconscious biases that exist in much of the adult population. For instance, studies have repeatedly demonstrated that when participants are primed with Black faces, they tend to evaluate subsequent stimuli more negatively than stimuli following White faces. A real-world example of this might be how a police officer responds when seeing a Black person or a White person reaching for something in the glove compartment of their vehicle. You can take Harvard’s famous racial bias test for yourself to see how this plays out in split-decision thinking (Editor’s note: psychologists have debated the exact meaning of the results of this bias test).

As it turns out, areas with high rates of crime are not a strong predictor for police violence, nor are urban, rural or suburban settings — at least not in the way you might think. Police killings have actually gone down in urban areas but gone up in suburban areas over the past eight years. Today, the number of police killings is twice as high in suburban areas as it is in urban areas. But the data on police violence are hard to parse, mostly because it’s the police who are usually reporting it. Today, reporting police violence is still not mandatory in many departments, and researchers, reporters, and lawmakers are left using a patchwork of news reports, self-reported instances and civilian claims to put together a picture that tells us anything useful.

The statistical outcome of this data is frightening: the likelihood that a Black man will be killed by police in his lifetime is about one in 1,000, which is the same likelihood that a 50-year-old woman will die of colon cancer in the next 10 years. One in 1,000 is not a high likelihood of something happening, but I think we can all agree our police shouldn’t be as deadly for Black men as colon cancer is for middle-aged women.

The problem of police violence is particularly bad in the United States. There are certainly dozens of other countries where your odds of being attacked, coerced, bribed, beaten or killed by police are far higher. But it’s not hard to make comparisons that raise serious questions.

In 2015, The Guardian tracked police killings in the United States (population 316.1 million) and England and Wales (population 56.9 million). According to their report, there were 59 fatal police shootings in the first 24 days of 2015 in the U.S. There were 55 fatal police shootings in the 24 years spanning 1990 to 2014 in England and Wales. Iceland, a country of 323,764 people, has had one fatal police shooting in 71 years. Stockton, California, population 298,118, had three in the first five months of 2015. In Finland, population 5.4 million people, six bullets were fired by police in the entire year of 2013. Jacob Blake, the man shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin this summer, was shot seven times.

If these kinds of discrepancies aren’t cause for self-reflection, then we are not nearly inquisitive enough.

Police in America have somewhere between 50 and 60 million contacts with citizens over the age of 16 every year. The vast majority of them are non-violent. Many are acts of heroism, necessary interventions, or de-escalation of potentially violent situations. Some 800,000 people are sworn-in law enforcement officers in the U.S., and in 2019, 135 of those officers died in the line of duty. In 2018, the FBI reported 58,866 assaults against law enforcement officers.

For police, these assaults are not hypotheticals. During most police training, cops are shown terrifying videos of suspects turning violent on a dime — often during traffic stops. This kind of video training is standard practice despite the fact that there are legitimate questions about the kind of defensive mindset they put officers in — and whether that mindset is a net positive for the officers and the citizens they interact with. But the upshot is important: police are trained to expect and prepare for any situation to turn violent without warning.

Police are also wanted. By everyone. The majority of people across all races and age groups say they feel safer with more police, not fewer police, patrolling their neighborhoods. Youth appears to be the best predictor for someone not wanting more police in their neighborhood.

There’s also strong evidence that visible policing works to reduce crime. Research across disciplines has repeatedly shown that more cops equals less crime. As Matty Yglesias has explained in Vox, this does not mean “adding police officers leads to more arrests and then locking up crooks leads to lower crime in the long run.” It means that people are less likely to commit crime when the presence of police is obvious or known.

Criminologists have demonstrated that our prison systems are the way they are, not because of over-policing, but because of draconian sentencing, jailing people for victimless crimes, and the fact our prisons do not rehabilitate people but often damage their lives in a way that leads to them being stuck in the prison system for life. The Canadian economist Alex Tabarrok argues that America is “underpoliced and overprisoned,” noting that the United States ratio of police to prison spending is seriously out of whack with much better performing countries (meaning we spend more on prisons and less on police).

We’ve seen this play out in the U.S. in real-time. Princeton’s Stephen Mello studied the impact of $1 billion in police funding that went to various departments after President Obama’s stimulus bill was passed in 2009. His data showed that the cities that got the funds, comparatively, had 3.2% higher staffing and 3.5% lower crime levels.

This kind of research, and these kinds of data points, are not easy to reconcile with common perceptions of these issues. American police are uniquely violent in the Western world, yet having more officers would probably reduce crime. Inner-cities are often the focus of police violence, but more killings are happening in suburban areas (relatedly, “African American” is often conflated with “inner-city” or “poor” but the majority of African Americans live both above the poverty line and outside of the inner cities). America has a higher prison population than any nation on earth, but the way to reduce it might be by adding more police in the streets.

Daunte Wright is dead and he shouldn’t be.

Officer Kim Potter, who shot him, appeared to mistake her firearm for her taser. There are reasonable objections to this explanation. Namely, that a handgun weighs a good deal more than a taser, and that police officers are often trained to keep their taser on the opposite side as their firearm to prevent mistakes like this from happening. Quippy tweets about how “cops didn’t mistakenly pull their tasers” during the Capitol riots score you points on Twitter, but the raw video speaks for itself. Potter yells “taser” repeatedly, as she’s trained to do before discharging it, and the shock in her voice after she pulls the trigger is self-evident.

So, taking everything here at face value, a police officer made a deadly mistake and killed someone — and that kind of mistake comes with repercussions.

It’s also true that Wright resisted arrest. It’s also true that police like Potter are probably more likely to make mistakes like this when a suspect does what Wright did. It’s also true that if you want to avoid being beaten or killed by police, not resisting arrest is going to up your odds significantly. But it certainly isn’t a foolproof strategy.

And yet, resisting arrest alone does not authorize police to use deadly force. More precisely, cops are legally allowed to use deadly force only when they perceive a deadly threat to themselves or others. Furthermore, police departments often have their own rules layered on top of this fundamental legal principle that dictate how officers may act.

The law here is fundamentally broken and counterproductive. Cops can, for instance, shoot someone fleeing a scene because they are worried about the theoretical threat that person may pose to someone else. In this instance, they would be responding to theoretical violence with actual deadly force. This hypothetical became precedent following Tennessee v. Garner, a 1985 Supreme Court case which ruled two officers shot a 15-year-old child legally while he was fleeing the scene of a burglary.

Even worse is that, by the law, an officer’s perception holds more weight than reality. If someone reaches for something in their pants and an officer shoots them, it matters more that the officer thought it might be a gun than the reality that it was actually a wallet. This is emblematic to me of a broken system.

There could be dozens of other root causes at play in the story of Daunte Wright. He owed money that he probably didn’t have. He was mixed up in the system, in part, for a minor marijuana offense that Minnesota may soon be legalizing. He was probably scared when he got pulled over, something his mom seemed to recognize as she told reporters that her last words to him were to advise him not to run. If he was scared, it was probably because (like many Black men) he has seen or experienced police interactions that go south. I’m sure he also didn’t want to go to prison, an outcome he probably understood as a strong possibility given his outstanding warrant.

There are also root cause policing issues. Cops are too strictly enforcing pointless laws — like air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors or low-level marijuana possession — in ways that can lead to violence. It is beaten into the heads of police officers that traffic stops are potentially dangerous for them, despite the fact that only one in 6.5 million traffic stops ends with an officer being killed, and only one in 365,000 ends in an officer being seriously injured. Over a 20-year-career, that means an officer who performs 200 traffic stops a year has about a one percent chance of a violent encounter. In simple terms, this is good cause to reduce these kinds of traffic stops in the first place. In Libertarian terms, Elizabeth Nolan Brown from Reason Magazine put it like this:

“The fact that stops over minor motor vehicle infractions do sometimes lead to violence—against police officers and the people they pull over—presents yet another reason to resist putting police and drivers in direct contact over non-risky matters like expired licenses, a broken taillight, or an illegally hung air freshener. If folks insist on criminalizing or fining drivers for some such infractions still, that could be taken care of with photographs and paper notices, as many speeding tickets are. This would put both cops and drivers in less danger. That we don't operate this way shows how much authorities rely on routine—and often pretextual—traffic stops as a way to search for drugs or find other reasons to harass and arrest people they don't like the looks of.”

Most pieces about police violence end without any resolution or thoughtful inquisition into how to improve things. Characterizing all cops as bastards or all people who resist arrest as threats to society that can be reasonably murdered has eroded our discourse in a way that it may feel as if nothing can get better. But this is not the truth. There are a number of actionable steps we can take as a society, and many other things that are improving as I write this sentence.

We need more accountability. The first and most important step toward that accountability is to eliminate qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is the obscure legal provision that allows cops to evade prosecution if the offense they committed does not violate “clearly established law.” The doctrine means if a police officer violates your rights, you need to identify a previous ruling by a court against a law enforcement official on exactly the same conduct under the same circumstances, otherwise, the official is immune. USA Today reporters Patrick Jaicomo and Anya Bidwell say qualified immunity has allowed courts to grant immunity to “officers who stole $225,000, a cop who shot a 10-year-old while trying to shoot a non-threatening family dog, prison officials who locked an inmate in a sewage-flooded cell for days,” among others. Police should not be tried in court any differently than citizens. They should not get to serve and live under a different set of laws than ordinary citizens do.

Similarly, we need a national database of police misconduct so cops can’t jump from one force to another if they lose their jobs for cause. We need the same data to be used for better research. Right now, we still can’t fully understand the level of force used by police every day and the reasons it is used. Creating sound incentives for these data-sharing practices could solve this issue. Police unions that protect officers who have committed misconduct from scrutiny should be penalized.

We need better training, and that might mean more money for police. Agencies around the country consistently fail to provide the kinds of training that are supposed to be required of them for things like use-of-force. There is no federal standard for how police can be trained, and the 18,000 police departments in the U.S. take on this task independently. Most cops know how to use force, but the stories that we often read are about cops not knowing when to use force. The distinction matters.

We also need to recognize that cops are not the enemy of citizens and citizens are not the enemy of police. Officers in America today are too often trained as if they are going to war with the people they are supposed to serve. Film and media narratives are particularly good at reinforcing this. The structure that police officers come into at various departments does not help: 80 percent of officers have some type of chronic stress, and many experience suicidal thoughts and substance abuse problems. The state of mental health for police officers is, in a word, disastrous.

We need to demilitarize our police. Cops don’t need tanks. They don’t need flash-bang grenades and armored vehicles. The militarization of our police, which is almost entirely about the profitability of the arrangement rather than the needs of a police force, reinforces the idea that citizens are enemy combatants and they must be put down.

We can also try new things and imagine a better future.

Every year, we get more and more research — and more and more experimentation — on novel ideas that work. Despite the limitations on research because of how hard it is to get data from police departments, policing in many cities appears to be improving, and crime rates before the pandemic were consistently going down.

The American Psychological Association has endorsed more widespread use of proposals it says can reduce police brutality and the number of negative interactions between citizens and officers.

When the Las Vegas Police Department applied a psychology-informed “hands off” policy for officers involved in foot chases, use of force dropped by 23%. In Seattle, officers trained in a “procedural justice” intervention designed in part by psychologists used force up to 40% less. These are just a few examples of the work the field is doing to address police brutality.

Psychological guidance works: community members want police to explain why they are being stopped and allow them to evaluate their situation and voice their grievances before police take any action. They also want officers to explain the law — why they are being stopped and what they did wrong.

In Denver, a new initiative to send mental health workers instead of police to certain calls has been a resounding success. The program is now being expanded. It sheds light on a common-sense takeaway: sending the same people to a domestic dispute, a bank robbery, a drug bust, a traffic stop, a cat in the tree and a mental health crisis is not a rational way to run a society. Cops are expected to be medics, therapists, addiction specialists, soldiers and traffic police all at the same time. We are asking more of them than can be reasonably expected of any human beings.

And guess what? All of these reforms have momentum.

While things may seem worse than ever, we have reason to be hopeful. Police violence against unarmed people — including unarmed Black people — which is the focus of many reform efforts, is going down. The disparity between how Black drug offenders and White drug offenders are treated in court seems to have disappeared. Communities are experimenting with abolishing cash bail and implementing community programs that create more positive relationships between police and citizens.

We are in a difficult moment in American history.

A young man is dead who shouldn’t be. Communities are angry and exhausted. Police are stressed and feel hated. Justice seems elusive and too complicated.

We’re not going to get out of this by demonizing each other and we’re certainly not going to escape it by pretending complicated issues are simple. They aren’t, and police use of force, crime rates and community-police relations are some of the most complex issues our nation faces.

But the solutions to these things are less evasive than we think. Lawyers, police chiefs and criminologists have laid out the solutions in plain terms. There is a growing political will at the federal level. There is a movement of activists hungry for change. And there are a lot of police officers willing to embrace those changes, as well as an increasing number of police departments willing to experiment.

Like most people, I’d love a clean, press-and-play solution. We’re not going to get one, though. Instead, we need to embrace the reforms that have worked and keep working toward the ones that are backed by research. We’ve got plenty to choose from.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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