Daunte Wright was pulled over by police officers on Sunday afternoon. The reason the police gave for the stop is that he was driving with expired registration tags on his license plate. The time was roughly 2 pm. Within minutes of being pulled over, Wright was dead.
What happened during those minutes is still being pieced together, but the essential horrors were captured on video. As the officers from the Brooklyn Center police approached Wright’s car, they noticed that he had an “illegal” air freshener dangling from his rearview mirror. They then ran his plates and found that he had $346 of outstanding fines and an arrest warrant for misdemeanor offenses. At this point, Wright was scared enough to call his mother. But before he could finish the call, the officers removed Wright from his vehicle, and as one officer fumbled for the handcuffs, Wright panicked and attempted to get back into his car. Another officer, Kim Potter, then decided to electrocute him, but instead of pulling out her Taser, she pulled out her gun and shot Wright to death. He was 20 years old.
The particulars of Wright’s murder have haunted me for a few days now. My own son, only 8, has a tendency to panic in stressful situations. I learned, very early, that the louder you talk to him, the less he hears you. The thought of a cop shouting instructions at him and then killing him for noncompliance keep me awake at night.
Wright’s death was not random. It happened because this society allows the police to prey on Black people. His murder took place just days after the world got to see video of Lt. Caron Nazario being pepper-sprayed and abused by Virginia State Police for driving his own new car. It took place 10 months and 10 miles from the murder of George Floyd. It took place in the long shadows of the murders and near-murders of Jacob Blake, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and so many more. And it followed decades of Black drivers being pulled over—and then, all too often harassed, fined, and arrested—as much as 40 percent more frequently than white drivers. Wright was right to call his mother.
There is, of course, a way to stop this needless slaughter of Black people for the apparently capital crime of “driving while Black.” We need not live in a world where the police can “accidentally” kill Black people who committed moving violations. The solution is simple and obvious: Abolish armed traffic stops. Use unarmed officers and ubiquitous technology to enforce the traffic laws instead. More Black people will live.
This isn’t as radical as it might sound—or as dystopian. Yes, cameras, drones, facial recognition technology, and the other apparatus of the surveillance state are just as racist as the people who program them. But I can argue a ticket much more effectively than I can dodge a bullet.
In most localities, we already have unarmed law enforcement officers issuing citations for minor vehicular offenses. Parking cops issue tickets all the time, but most of them are armed only with that unforgiving ticket-writing thingy, instead of a gun. And despite the fact that I’ve seen people pull out a thesaurus to come up with the worst possible invectives to shout at these officers, when was the last time you heard about somebody killed by a parking inspector?
There’s no actual reason we should have armed police officers enforcing traffic laws. Government officials don’t need to carry a gun to write a ticket or issue a summons. The state need not send armed paramilitary units to rove the streets looking for people who miss a turn signal. The option of shooting somebody over an air freshener should never be on the table.
I’m not calling for traffic anarchy. Driving is a dangerous privilege. Road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people under 54 in the United States. They’re the leading cause of work-related death in almost every industry. I’m constantly aware that getting behind the wheel of a car is the most dangerous thing I do, and sitting in my car is the most dangerous thing my children do. I know I’m much more likely to be killed by a fellow civilian speeding through an intersection than by a cop violating my constitutional and human rights. Cars are so dangerous the Federalist Society probably wants to invent a constitutional right for aggrieved white boys to drive them without a permit.
But we have no evidence that siccing armed police officers on people suspected of moving violations makes our roads safer. Indeed, technology has advanced to the point where many traditional traffic enforcement duties are being handled by the surveillance state instead of the police state. The last time I got a ticket for anything, I was busted by the robots: A red-light camera caught me making an illegal U-turn. Since it would be patently ridiculous to outfit the red-light camera with a ray gun and program it to zap me unconscious until the police arrived with my physical ticket, I received my ticket in the mail about a week later, and my illegal turning spree came to an end.
Between the cameras, which are everywhere anyway, and some unarmed traffic wardens empowered to pull over Lamborghinis and protect us from drunks, we could have all of the same safety benefits from road regulation that we do now. The only thing we’d lose from traffic cop disarmament is the likelihood that allegedly clairvoyant police officers would use minor traffic violations to pull over Black drivers in the search for other crimes.
Those stops, the fishing expeditions during which cops use a traffic violation as an excuse to search for drugs or guns or other illegal activity, should be unconstitutional anyway. The Fourth Amendment should require the police to have “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion” that a driver is engaged in criminal activity before they can stop the person. But those normal rules are thrown out of the window once people sit behind the wheel of their vehicles. Courts have decided that citizens have fewer constitutional protections in their cars than nearly anywhere else in society. Judges act like the internal combustion engine is the Fourth Amendment’s kryptonite, and so cops can use simple traffic violations—from a broken taillight to a dangling air freshener—to stop and search people they would otherwise have no credible reason to question or harass.
That was the ruling by the Supreme Court in a 1996 case called Whren v. U.S. In that case, cops patrolling a “high drug area” (really just a predominately Black part of Washington, D.C., but whatever) observed a motorist stopped at a stop sign for an “usually long” time. The car then abruptly moved and turned without signaling. The police stopped the car for the traffic violation (which, again, they didn’t care about) and found the drugs they were really looking for. The Supreme Court ruled that the arrest was valid, even though the officers had an ulterior motive for the traffic stop.
Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion, but the ruling was unanimous. Somehow, eight white people and Clarence Thomas decided that the Fourth Amendment should not matter if the cops claim you forgot to hit your turn signal.
It is decisions like Whren that killed Daunte Wright. Brooklyn Center police didn’t actually care that Wright was driving with expired tags on his plate. They were hoping to catch him doing something else, something actually criminal. When they came up empty for a real crime, they started scrambling through air fresheners and prior moving violations looking for anything to justify their pointless stop of a 20-year-old kid.
Once that process of Supreme Court–approved harassment started, it was Wright, not the cops, who justifiably feared for his life. If you’ve never been pulled over by the police for a pretextual stop, I don’t think you can appreciate how frightened Wright must have been. There’s no telling what a cop willing to arrest you over an air freshener might also do. Every Black person who has been stopped by a cop for no good reason knows there’s a chance the cops will plant or straight-up invent a good reason. Every Black person knows that the kind of cop who would stop you for driving while black is exactly the same kind of cop who would kill you for being Black.
I’ve been there. I was pulled over in Indiana, back when I was about the same age as Wright. When my tormentor approached my car, he said it “smelled funny.” I had just gotten it washed. I responded with something flippant, channeling my inner Sharon Stone with something like, “What are you going to do, arrest me for having my car washed?” The next thing I knew I was being pulled out of my car, and my head was then slammed onto its hood.
I was so scared. And watching the video of Wright’s murder, I could feel his fear rising. Even though I already knew what would happen to him by the time I watched it, I wanted to scream, “Stay calm, brother! Stay calm and we will live and grow and have a family and children. We can survive this! Don’t let them take us now.”
The flight response overpowered him. We don’t even know if he was trying to flee; he might have been just trying to get back into his car where he felt safer. The cops could have let him sit down; they could have tried to calm him. They could have talked to him. They could have seen him.
Instead, they shot him.
Daunte Wright was no threat. Even if he had driven away, so what? The officers still had his plate, the information from his driver’s license, and the make and model of his car. The police could have driven to his mother’s house and handed her the summons for the freshener violation. An unarmed cop might have put the ticket in the mail.
But that didn’t happen, because the officer playing at traffic cop still had her gun. An otherwise ordinary example of court-approved racism escalated to state-sponsored homicide, because we allow the cops to turn traffic infractions into capital crimes.
Armed cops should not be allowed to pull us over for traffic violations. They can’t be trusted with that power.