As more details emerged in the days since the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer, so did questions and outrage from community members about why officers chose to engage Wright as they did: Why would expired plates warrant Wright’s arrest or the use of a taser? How could an officer with more than 20 years of training possibly mistake a firearm for a taser?
Wright’s death occurred in Brooklyn Center, a neighboring city of Minneapolis, which last summer became the site of protests after the police shooting and death of George Floyd and brought to the public’s consciousness demands like defunding and abolishing the police. That Wright was shot by police less than a year after Floyd’s murder at a time when Floyd’s killer is on trial after promises of police reform, reiterates both the urgency of those demands and the futility of oft-touted reforms that have yet to reduce police violence or protect the lives of Black people. In fact, the very details of Wright’s death, from the claim that the officer intended to use a taser to the body camera footage that captured Wright’s last moments, echo past police killings and make clear how misuse of lethal force continues despite years of “reform.”
Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter and the Brooklyn Center Police Department have called Wright’s death the result of an “accidental discharge” during a traffic stop for minor legal violations—driving with an expired license plate and an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. Body camera footage released on Monday shows officers handcuffed Wright outside of his car while he struggled to get free and return to the driver’s seat. Officer Potter then drew her firearm, yelled “taser” three times and shot Wright in the chest. As Wright attempted to drive off, Potter was heard yelling “Shit! I shot him.” Wright died at the scene moments later. Body cameras—the likes of which captured Sunday’s shooting and countless others, including the 2016 murder of Philando Castile by Minneapolis police officers—seem to merely document fatal police encounters, not prevent them. Meanwhile, Wright’s shooting and the police department’s explanation for Potter’s actions call to mind the 2009 police murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, who on New Years Eve was pinned to the ground and then shot in the back by an officer who claimed they had meant to tase the 22-year-old.
Even the presence of tasers and recommendations that more funds be invested in such equipment in order to keep communities safer is ill-conceived. Just last fall, legislators in Buffalo, New York, announced a $3.9 million project to provide more non-lethal alternatives to firearms, including tasers and Bolawraps. Community groups heavily criticized the project, arguing that the money could be better spent on pandemic relief, diversion programs, and community health services. Not only do alternative weapons divert resources away from the social services that advocates argue are crucial to the invest-divest cycle central to police defunding campaigns, but they also simply do not guarantee non-fatal encounters. In some cases even when tasers are deployed correctly, they’re still lethal because the electrical charge can stop a victim’s heart.
The most fervent demand in the wake of police killings is often the call to arrest and charge officers. In Wright’s case, that has already happened: On Wednesday, prosecutors charged Potter after three days of ongoing protest throughout Minneapolis and calls from Wright’s family to prosecute the officers. The problem with these demands is that they ultimately continue a cyclical pattern that might satisfy the immediate desire for retribution but does little to shrink the ongoing danger of police power or the violence inherent in policing. Nothing illustrates this conflict more than the fact that Wright was murdered just 20 minutes away from Hennepin County Government Center and the high-profile trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer that knelt on and killed Floyd early last spring. Wright’s death at the hands of police barely a year after Floyd’s murder in the same area begs the question of what justice can really be achieved through the criminal legal system. Regardless of outcome, the trials themselves do nothing to reduce community contact with police and fail to end the ceaseless loss of Black life.
Advocates pushing the public toward police abolition make the important distinction between reforms that do nothing to lessen police power beyond shallow changes with little teeth, and reforms that specifically and meaningfully shrink the power of police on a system-wide level. The latter include changes to dramatically reduce police encounters, such as assigning other service providers for situations like mental health emergencies or traffic stops instead of using police. Data has shown how frequently police engagement in traffic stops becomes deadly for Black drivers. An NPR investigation into the deaths of 135 Black people shot by police since 2015 found that “more than a quarter of the killings occurred during traffic stops.” Advocates have called for traffic enforcement to be transferred to external civilian agencies and for the increased use of automated services like speed detectors and traffic cameras to divert police away from traffic enforcement and significantly reduce violent encounters. The idea has found traction among some elected officials and political hopefuls as well. As reported this week by The Appeal, Sheila Nezhad, a Minneapolis mayoral candidate, is supportive of moving traffic enforcement away from police and into the city’s Traffic and Parking Services department.
That none of these proposed changes, even if they are implemented, will bring back the lives of people like Wright is both a tragedy and a reminder of the fierce urgency of the problem. In a press conference on Tuesday, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump stood with Wright’s family members of Daunte Wright outside of the Hennepin County Government Center to share their outrage and sorrow. They gathered to tell the world more about the immediate moments before Wright’s death as well as what kind of person he was. His mother, Katie Wright, spoke about the call she received right after he had been pulled over, her initial fears that he had been arrested, and the FaceTime call from his girlfriend who gave her the news that her son had been shot.
“My son was laying there unresponsive.” Wright said. “That was the last time I’d seen my son. That’s the last time I heard from my son and I’ve had no explanation since then.”
Daunte’s aunt, Nyesha Wright, spoke powerfully about how the narrative of both Wright’s death and life is already being inaccurately written by the media and by the Brooklyn Center Police Department. In life, Daunte was not “from a broken home,” Wright said. “He was loved, he was ours, he came from us.” She further explained how Daunte’s 1-year-old son is now fatherless “not over a mistake, [but] over murder.”
Daunte’s family was also joined by Rodney Floyd, Philonise Floyd, and Brandon Williams, the brothers and nephew of George Floyd. The three men took time away from the trial of Derek Chauvin to share their condolences, prayers, and offerings of support to the grieving family. The presence of the Floyd family underscores how stories of police murders are not isolated incidents. As Toshira Garraway, founder of Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, explained in her opening statement at the press conference, over 470 people have been murdered by police in the state of Minnesota in the last 20 years.
“Enough is enough,” Garraway said. “We’re standing together in solidarity. You will not separate our families, you will not isolate these issues.”
Rodney Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, spoke of the look on Wright’s face captured in the police body camera footage. He said it mirrored “the same terrified look I had numerous times when I got pulled over by the police.” The ties between Rodney Floyd and Daunte Wright, George Floyd and Nyesha Wright, and Katie Wright and Philonise Floyd are endless: from the shared moments of fear for their own lives during police encounters, the grief over a lost loved one, the national stage they were thrust into in the midst of that grief, and even in the connections their loved ones shared in life. At the press conference, Nyesha Wright shared that George Floyd’s girlfriend had once been Daunte Wright’s teacher.
Ensuring that other families will not find themselves bound up in those same ties will require bolder, more meaningful changes that force us not to merely reimagine policing but to ask whether our current system provides anything resembling public safety, especially for Black people. In the midst of a high profile trial and yet another fatal police encounter that took the life of another Black person, the time to do so is now.