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Shock. Outrage. Fatigue. It is hard to watch yet another video of a police officer killing a Black man without a mixture of emotions. The predominant question we, and many other Americans, have is simple: Why does this keep happening?
Certainly police officers are sometimes caught in the midst of dangerous situations that require split-second decisions for the safety of the community and the officers involved. But why do traffic stops too often become deadly when Black men are involved? And why are Black men disproportionately pulled over, often for minor offenses like an expired inspection sticker?
On Sunday, a female police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, shot 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop. According to the Brooklyn Center Police chief, the officer thought she was firing her Taser, but instead shot Wright once in the chest. He died of the gunshot wound. The officer and chief have both resigned.
According to police, Wright was pulled over for expired registration tags. Police found out that there was a warrant for Wright’s arrest. In a dashcam video, police were handcuffing Wright when he resisted and got back into the car. Obviously, none of that should amount to a death sentence. Wright was shot in the driver’s seat before speeding off and crashing the car. Wright was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash and his girlfriend was injured.
The shooting of Wright took place only about 10 miles from the Hennepin County Courthouse where former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial for the killing of George Floyd. Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds after Floyd was arrested for using a suspected counterfeit $20 bill at a small grocery store. Floyd pleaded that he could not breathe and bystanders asked officers to allow Floyd to have medical attention.
The chief of the Minneapolis Police Department testified that Chauvin’s actions were a clear violation of its policies. We appreciate the sentiment from law enforcement officers around the country who have condemned Chauvin’s actions. It’s valuable for officers to stand up and say that this isn’t who they are. But that also requires a sustained commitment to reflection and reform. This can’t keep happening.
The shooting of Wright came the same weekend that video of an officer in Virginia pepper spraying a Black and Hispanic Army officer was revealed. In that incident, which occured in December, Army Lt. Caron Nazario was stopped by police who did not see the temporary license plate on his new SUV.
Police, with guns drawn, ordered Nazario, who was in uniform, out of the vehicle but he said he was afraid to do so. An officer pepper sprayed Nazario in the face. He was then pulled from the vehicle and forced to the ground.
At the end of the interaction, officers told Nazario he was free to go if he did not talk about the incident, but that he would face additional charges if he complained about it. The officer who used the pepper spray has been fired.
Police in America fatally shoot about 1,000 people a year, a number that has remained fairly constant in recent years, according to data collected and compiled by The Washington Post.
Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than white Americans. And, although Black Americans account for 13 percent of the country’s population, they account for more than a quarter of those killed by police. Hispanic Americans are also disproportionately killed by police.
More than 95 percent of victims of police shootings are men and the majority are between the ages of 20 and 40.
But, the problems start well before an officer draws a gun. Researchers have found that Black motorists are much more likely to be pulled over than white drivers and that Black drivers are more likely to be searched.
An analysis of 16 years worth of traffic stop data in North Carolina found that Black drivers were 63 percent more likely to be stopped. When accounting for the fact that Black people drive 16 percent less, Black drivers were nearly twice as likely to be stopped. Black drivers were more than twice as likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white drivers. However, contraband was more likely to be found in searches of white drivers.
The researchers also gathered and analyzed traffic stop data from law enforcement agencies in 16 states, including Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio and Vermont that pointed to similar disparities in the rate at which Black drivers were stopped and searched compared to white drivers.
“‘Driving while Black’ is very much a thing; it’s everywhere and it’s not just a North Carolina or a Southern problem but across the United States,” said Kelsey Shoub, an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina and one of three co-authors of “Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race.” “The second thing is that it appears to be more systemic than a few ‘bad apple’ officers engaged in racial profiling.”
This and other data highlight the need for systemic reviews of police training and conduct with an eye toward rooting out racially motivated behavior among law enforcement officials.
As if we needed it, this data and the continued killing of Black men remind us that disparities in policing can have needlessly fatal consequences. It should not be radical to suggest that these patterns must stop.
We condemn the protests that have turned violent in the wake of Wright’s death and fail to see how looting is a legitimate response to a very real problem of failed police work. We also understand why too many Black Americans feel unheard and fear for their safety when doing what should be everyday things, like driving or going to a convenience store.
We don’t have all the answers, or maybe any of the answers. But we do know this cycle can’t keep repeating itself.