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Daunte Wright’s killing is a reminder of how quickly traffic stops can become deadly

Wright was killed by police just 10 miles from where Derek Chauvin is on trial for the killing of George Floyd.

A loose tangle of people, largely in black, march through the middle of a street, surrounded by skyscrapers. One holds a large black and white sign reading, “Driving while Black should not be a death sentence.”
Protesters in New York demonstrate to demand justice for Daunte Wright, who was killed in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, during a traffic stop.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The police killing of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, following a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, came as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial for the killing of George Floyd, roughly 10 miles away.

Wright was shot by 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center police force — and former police union president — Kim Potter. Potter, along with the city’s police chief, resigned from the force on Tuesday. And Wednesday, with a state investigation into Wright’s death underway, a county official announced Potter will face second-degree manslaughter charges.

Wright’s death, one of more than 260 fatal police shootings already this year, is yet another reminder of how quickly any police interaction can turn deadly — particularly for Black Americans.

Wright was stopped by police Sunday afternoon; his mother, Katie Wright, said her son called her as the stop was happening in order to ask her about insurance. His mother also said Wright told her officers informed him he was being stopped because there was an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. Most “objects suspended between the driver and the windshield,” including air fresheners, are illegal in the state. Police, however, said Monday that Wright was stopped for having expired tags on his car.

Police also say they discovered after they pulled him over that there was a warrant out for Wright’s arrest. Wright’s mother says she heard him being told to exit his vehicle, and that “I heard police officers say, ‘Daunte, don’t run.’”

Police body camera video released Monday afternoon shows Wright outside the car, with his hands behind his back. As one officer moves to handcuff him, he breaks away, reentering his car. An officer attempts to pull him back out, while the body camera shows Potter aiming a gun at Wright.

That gun discharges; Wright is shot. The car pulls away. Potter can be heard saying, “Oh, shit, I just shot him.” The now former chief of police at Brooklyn Center said he believes the shot was an “accidental discharge,” and, given that the officer can be heard yelling “taser,” that the officer drew her handgun in error.

“A mistake, that doesn’t even sound right,” Aubrey Wright, Daunte Wright’s father, told Good Morning America on Tuesday. “This officer has been on the force for 26 years. I can’t accept that.”

Wright died a few blocks away from the shooting after hitting another vehicle. His girlfriend, who needed treatment for non-life-threatening injuries, was in the passenger seat.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension — the law enforcement agency that oversaw the state investigation into George Floyd’s death — has begun a review of the shooting.

Calls for justice have led to protests

“We want justice for Daunte,” Katie Wright said at a memorial following the shooting.

Following the shooting, hundreds of Brooklyn Center residents protested late into the night in demonstrations that culminated in a rally outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department, which saw protesters demanding accountability as officers pushed them back with flash-bang grenades and tear gas.

Police ultimately declared the rally — which featured some protesters throwing items at armored officers — an unlawful assembly and ordered the crowd to leave or be arrested.

Monday night, demonstrations continued, with hundreds again gathering near the police station, and protesters again being repelled with flash-bangs and tear gas. Police said about 40 people were arrested.

Ahead of Monday’s rallies, Wright’s mother called on the protesters to be peaceful in their advocacy, saying, “All the violence, if it keeps going it’s only going to be about the violence. We need it to be about why my son got shot for no reason.”

Many parents have asked similar questions. More than 1,127 people were killed by police during 2020, according to Mapping Police Violence. And many of those parents have had Black children; the races of all those killed aren't known, but of those that are, about 30 percent of those killed were Black.

The knowledge that a disproportionate number of Black Americans are killed by police can make every encounter feel dangerous. At another recent, prominent traffic stop — this one in Virginia — 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, a Black Latinx man, was confronted by officers who demanded, at gunpoint, that he exit his vehicle.

When Nazario told the officers, “I’m honestly afraid to get out,” one responded, “Yeah, you should be.”

And he should have been.

Wright’s killing, the killing of Philando Castile (who died nearly five years ago, not far from where Wright lived his last moments), the arrest and death of Sandra Bland, and the many other Black people killed are testament to the fact that traffic stops are inherently dangerous. And it has reignited debate over just how necessary traffic stops really are.

Traffic stops demonstrate police bias and can be dangerous for Black drivers

As University of Arkansas law professor Jordan Blair Woods wrote in the Michigan Law Review, police, like many Black Americans, are taught to view stops as dangerous — not to those being stopped, but to themselves.

“Police academies regularly show officer trainees videos of the most extreme cases of violence against officers during routine traffic stops in order to stress that mundane police work can quickly turn into a deadly situation if they become complacent on the scene or hesitate to use force,” Woods wrote.

But in a review of Florida’s traffic stop data from 2005 to 2014, Woods found this mindset to be unnecessary. Police, the data showed, had a 1 in 6.5 million chance of being killed during a traffic stop, and a 1 in 361,111 chance of being seriously injured. Overall, 98 percent of stops saw zero or minor injury to officers.

Citizens’ chances of surviving a routine stop with police don’t seem to be quite as good; a 2019 study by Shea Streeter, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, found that in 2015, about 11 percent of police killings happened at traffic and pedestrian stops nationwide.

Complicating matters for Black individuals is that they appear to be stopped more often than white people — in some localities, by a large margin. The Stanford Open Policing Project, a database of more than 200 million traffic stops, found that in St. Paul, not far from where Wright was killed, Black drivers are a little over three times more likely than white drivers to be pulled over; in San Jose, California, Black drivers are six times more likely to be stopped.

Arguably, drivers of all races ought to be stopped at about the same rate — failing to signal or missing a sudden change in speed limit would seem to be mistakes anyone could make. This has led to a number of researchers trying to understand this disparity, and, in general, these studies suggest that the issue has to do with officer bias, conscious or unconscious, that casts Black people as inherently more dangerous than their white counterparts.

Tied to this idea is the question of what stops are for. As a group of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Dartmouth College researchers led by UNC political science professor Frank Baumgartner wrote in a 2017 paper, in many departments, traffic stops are meant to serve a dual purpose: as a deterrent for the person stopped, and as a chance to do some investigative work for the officer. In many ways, this system is akin to the stop-and-frisk technique, a practice most prominently used in New York City that was meant to uncover criminal behavior through street searches. The program was ruled unconstitutional.

As Baumgartner wrote, “officers are trained to use traffic stops as a general enforcement strategy aimed at reducing violent crime or drug trafficking. When officers are serving these broader goals, they are making an investigatory stop, and these stops have little (if anything) to do with traffic safety and everything to do with who looks suspicious.”

If Black drivers are seen as more suspicious and police are trained to view traffic stops as dangerous in general, this creates a serious problem. When a Black driver is stopped, the interaction is more likely to begin with the officer even more on guard for trouble than they might otherwise be.

This can lead to the kind of rapid escalation seen in Nazario’s case, in which officers attempted to manage the stop through violence: first with a weapon and threats, and later with nonlethal force. Body camera footage released during Chauvin’s trial, for example, shows an officer drawing his weapon shortly after approaching Floyd’s vehicle and yelling at him to “Put your fucking hands up right now.”

All of this puts Black drivers in mortal danger. Law enforcement representatives have argued the stops are necessary — “we find drugs, evidence of other crimes ... it’s a very valuable tool,” Kevin Lawrence, the Texas Municipal Police Association’s executive director, told the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2019 — but those discoveries are rare. Nationally, about 4 percent of stops resulted in arrests in 2015, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

This has a number of activists and elected officials questioning whether the risks traffic stops pose to drivers — particularly Black drivers — are worth such a small number of arrests.

Berkeley, California, for instance, recently approved a plan to prohibit officers from conducting traffic stops for violations that have nothing to do with safety; Oakland has a similar policy in place. Other places, including Montgomery County, Maryland, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have contemplated such measures as well. Washington, DC, stripped its police department of some of its authority to regulate traffic laws, empowering its transportation department to do enforcement instead. New York’s attorney general has recommended New York City make a similar change.

The long-term effectiveness of such measures remains to be seen. But they represent a step toward reform and a step away from the kind of policing that has left Wright dead.