The Harm of Calling Daunte Wright’s Death an Accident

Giving the police the benefit of the doubt undermines the victims

Naisha Wright, Daunte Wright’s aunt, with members of George Floyd’s family. Photo: Stephen Maturen / Getty Images

Protesters took to the streets after hearing the news. A Brooklyn Center officer shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright. Many wondered how this could happen again. Another unarmed Black man lost his life from a police encounter. Wright died a few miles away from Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s death played on repeat. The jury has yet to deliberate Derek Chauvin’s guilt, though that day will soon arrive. The physical and thematic proximity of these cases shocked an already grieving community. Kim Potter, a 26-year-old veteran of the force, and the police chief have since resigned from their positions. But, before they did, they helped set the narrative. They claimed Wright’s death was an accident and the media quoted them as such.

“It is my belief the officer meant to deploy their Taser but shot him with a single bullet,” Chief Gannon said, adding: “There’s nothing I can say to lessen the pain.”

The officer fired a single shot at Wright. That much is undeniable. But the concept of his death being a mistake is an opinion. It speaks to motive or alleged lack thereof. That’s something a jury would have to decide if this case ever makes it before one. While the chief claimed there was nothing he could say to lessen the pain, his opinion caused Wright’s family further harm.

The Wright family pushed back on the idea that officer Potter mistakenly shot Wright. The officer saying “Taser” before shooting Wright doesn’t exonerate her. The narrative of this description as an accident defends the officer’s actions. It also diminishes the harm caused to Wright’s body. The cameras were rolling, and the officers on the scene knew that. That’s the context in which we should evaluate them. Her statements can become evidence used to defend her behavior. Yet, it is not a definitive rationale. Advocates point out that she was on the force for 26 years and trained other officers as part of her job. Yet, she claimed she mistakenly fired her gun that day.

“An accident is knocking over a glass of milk. It’s not an accident to take your gun out of the holster,” [Wright family attorney Jeff] Storms told reporters Tuesday in Minneapolis. “It’s not an accident to point your gun. It’s not an accident to ignore the fact that what you’re holding doesn’t weigh the same amount as the Taser you’ve used in training hundreds of times.

Potter trained other officers as part of her job. Not only did she have decades of experience on the force, but she also taught others how to serve. Calling this incident an accident gives the officer the benefit of the doubt. And giving them the benefit of the doubt undermines victims of police brutality. It’s a way of patting society on the head and saying, “It’s okay. This was an accident. You’re not seeing a pattern by the police. Everything is normal. Nothing to see here.” Media outlets dropped the ball by contributing to this narrative.

The medical examiner ruled Daunte Wright’s death a homicide. On Wednesday, the district attorney charged Potter with second-degree manslaughter. As the family’s lawyers expressed, we’re not talking about a glass of spilled milk. Wright cannot get back to his family, and his son will grow up without a father. This incident is a tragedy, and calling it an accident undermines that point.

In the video, we can hear the officer express her intention to use her Taser. But that doesn’t change the fact that she shot him at point-blank range with her firearm instead. The police chief discussed the officer’s intent. At this point, he could have tried to console the grieving community. Instead, he leaned into justifying the officer’s actions. This action is address by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,

Researchers found that participants shoot armed targets more often and more quickly if they’re black rather than white, and refrain from shooting more often when the target is white. The most common mistakes are shooting an unarmed black target and failing to shoot an armed white target.

Police officers are not morally superior to members of the general public. Yet, people continue to give them the benefit of the doubt. There are some key reasons why that tradition needs to stop. People assume that when an officer steps on the scene, they have arrived to help. But, Black communities know that’s not always the case. They show up to enforce the law and often hurt citizens in the process.

Black men and women continue to die disproportionately in interactions with police. Stops and frisks, while outlawed in some areas, are still quite common. Research shows that, in America, one out of 1,000 Black men can expect to die by police. It’s essential to see Wright’s death as part of a larger pattern of police brutality as discussed in the quote below from the PNAS journal for the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Social scientists and public health scholars now widely acknowledge that police contact is a key vector of health inequality and is an important cause of early mortality for people of color.

Some people think that officers stop crime, but crime-fighting is reactionary at best. Also, they are not lawyers or even legal aids. Thus, their understanding of the law is limited. The same can be said about their knowledge of mental health.

According to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, “about a quarter of fatal encounters with law enforcement involve a person with a severe mental illness.” Society has tasked people with little understanding of the law with enforcement. They have also made them responsible for assessing mental health with no formal mental health training. It’s no wonder why these incidents are rampant in our society. The current system will continue to produce similar results.

American policing isn’t broken by accident; this is by design. Luckily, citizens have the power to change this dynamic. Even former President Barack Obama, who critiqued the defund the police movement, renewed calls for “reimagining policing.”

Police brutality doesn’t take days off, not even as the country watches the trial of a generation. Since last May, many took to the streets to protest. Corporate gesturing has become commonplace. Yet, Black people dying in police custody continues. Calling Wright’s death an accident caused harm by diminishing the problem of systemic racism in policing. Out of respect for his family, the media should stop characterizing his death in this way. As long as society keeps calling Black pain a mistake, they take responsibility away from those causing it. America cannot heal through disillusionment. As the Wright family says:

“So don’t tell us it’s an accident, because it undermines the tragic loss of life that this family has experienced,” Storms continued. “So whenever anyone tells us it’s an accident, I hope that we are all very quick to retort that.”

Essayist, Poet, Activist, and Scholar, EIC of CULTURED, Founder of #WEOC, with bylines at Momentum & ZORA ♥︎

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