I’m starting to write this column only a few minutes after watching the mayor and police chief of Brooklyn Center, Minn.—a suburb of Minneapolis—try to explain the utterly inexplicable, which is how yet another young, unarmed Black man ended up dead in the street, felled by a police bullet. My hands are still shaking a bit with fury.
How could Daunte Wright—a 20-year-old Black man, father of a 2-year-old girl—die at the hands of police just 10 miles away from where justice is sought for last year’s police killing of George Floyd, which was supposed to trigger some sort of racial reckoning in America? How could a veteran police officer make such a life-or-death mistake in firing her handgun thinking it was a Taser? And how could a traffic stop over something so trivial—either an expired registration tag, or an air freshener hung on the rear-view mirror—result in ending a human life?
Statistics suggest the real reason Daunte Wright was pulled over—which is the reason that he’s no longer alive—was the color of his skin.
What’s more, the police killing of Wright came as the nation was still processing the shocking video from another police traffic stop in Windsor, Va., where an officer was fired this weekend after body-cam footage showed him dousing a uniformed Black U.S. Army medic with pepper spray. The medic had been pulled over for lacking a license plate, even though the temporary tag for the newly purchased vehicle was prominently displayed in a rear window.
The outcome is Virginia was different (there, Lt. Caron Nazario now is suing two Windsor officers for using excessive force) but what’s so striking is what these two incidents shared in common. Both drivers were Black men, and both were reportedly stopped for violations of traffic law that were inconsequential, and arguably trivial. As these events too often escalate, almost irrationally, into out-of-all-proportion violence, more experts are saying we should no longer ask, why did this traffic stop go bad? We should ask, why have these traffic stops at all?
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“Traffic stops come fraught with problems,” said Barry Friedman, the New York University Law School professor who is faculty director of its Policing Project and one of those experts questioning the purpose of most police encounters with motorists. He said that while safer roads are the ostensible purpose for police traffic enforcement, highway stops are also seen as a source of revenue for cash-strapped communities, and—most importantly—are often viewed by cops as a pretext to investigate other crimes, often around narcotics or guns.
Studies have shown that in communities with large Black and brown populations, these so-called pretextual traffic stops are the rule, not the exception. Busted tail lights, or a not-illuminated license plate, or an expired tag (although apparently thousands of motorists in Minnesota are driving with them, in the wake of COVID-19), or making a too-wide left turn or crossing a yellow line.
Or, incredibly, an air freshener dangling down from a driver’s rear-view mirror. When I initially heard on Sunday night about the killing of Daunte Wright, and read that in his final seconds he’d called his mother and said his air freshener was the reason cops pulled him over, I was shocked. But—as Buzzfeed’s Zoe Tillman reported last June—traffic stops over these air fresheners aren’t just frequent but have been upheld by the courts. The claim is that they obstruct a driver’s vision, although experts say cops may believe their purpose is to mask the smell of marijuana. Air fresheners shouldn’t be illegal—if they’re so deadly, why does Pep Boys have an aisle filled with them?—but then, marijuana shouldn’t be, either.
In the end, Brooklyn Center police claimed the deadly stop wasn’t over the air freshener you can buy at Autozone but over the expired tag that half of Minnesota apparently is also driving with. But statistics suggest the real reason Daunte Wright was pulled over—which is the reason that he’s no longer alive—was the color of his skin.