What really killed Daunte Wright?

AP Photo/Christian Monterrosa

I realize that the title of this article may seem a bit on the tone-deaf side. We obviously know how Daunte Wright was killed because we have the entire event on camera from multiple angles. I had held off on commenting about this particular shooting until we had all of the available facts, but we definitely know that he was shot during a routine traffic stop by a police officer named Kimberly Potter. Potter claims that she accidentally grabbed her firearm when intending to wield her Taser and the Chief of Police seems to believe her story. Her reaction after the gun discharged makes that seem plausible, though it does speak to what appears to be either an appalling lack of training or an egregious mistake. The investigation continues.

But the reason I posed this question today has less to do with the events during the traffic stop than with one analysis of the root cause of the incident offered by Billy Binion at Reason Magazine. To be clear, Binion isn’t denying that Officer Potter pulled the trigger (intentionally or by mistake), but rather that the entire affair could have been avoided if Minnesota, along with much of the nation, didn’t tend to overcriminalize trivial actions by citizens, leading to needless confrontations with law enforcement officers attempting to enforce those laws. Remember that the original stop took place because Wright had some sort of air freshener dangling from his rearview mirror. Here are some of the primary points that Binion is making.

When a cop killed a man in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, yesterday, the officer had reportedly pulled him over for hanging air fresheners on his rearview mirror. It wasn’t just the latest high-profile case of abusive policing—it was important reminder of the ill effects of criminalizing the most trivial behaviors…

Police accountability, training, and transparency are certainly important: If an officer cannot distinguish between a firearm and a taser, we have a problem. But it’s also a problem that cops could pull Wright over for this reason in the first place…

Serious criminal justice reform should include an effort to criminalize fewer things. We need to slash away the laws that make virtually everyone a criminal—and that lead to so many unpleasant, and sometimes deadly, confrontations with law enforcement. Daunte Wright would be alive today had he not dared to hang an air freshener in the wrong spot.

In his essay, in addition to Wright’s choice to put an air freshener in his car, he mentions several other cases. He points out that George Floyd’s fatal encounter with the police began when he allegedly used a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Eric Garner died in a police chokehold after initially being stopped for selling loose cigarettes. Ramon Lopez died in police custody in Phoenix after being reported for loitering.

Allow me to first say that I agree with Billy Binion on part of the point he’s making, at least to a certain extent. We do have a number of trivial laws on the books in many places that should warrant something less than direct police intervention when they should be out dealing with more serious crimes. If the police receive a video of someone selling loose cigarettes on the sidewalk or driving with an air freshener on their mirror, it seems as if you could identify them easily enough with the technology available today, mail them a summons and have them come to court to pay a modest fine. And that’s assuming we actually need all of those laws, to begin with.

With that said, however, we are hugely oversimplifying this situation if we simply claim that Daunte Wright “was killed for having an air freshener in his car.” The same can be said for the other examples listed in the linked essay. While it’s true that Wright was allegedly in violation of an ordinance dealing with objects blocking the vision of drivers, it’s highly doubtful that any more would have come of the situation than the issuance of a ticket if that were the end of it and he would have gone on his way. If George Floyd had simply turned over a counterfeit bill or proven that he didn’t have such a thing, a similar outcome should have followed.

But when the police who pulled Wright over checked his plates, they discovered that he had outstanding warrants, including one for a gun crime, albeit nothing as serious as shooting somebody. If you’ve skipped a court date on a gun charge, the situation has escalated beyond anything to do with air fresheners. We are informed that once the police revealed that they were aware of the warrants and were going to take him into custody, Wright made the choice to attempt to hop back into his vehicle and flee from the police. (Something that had also done before, generating a warrant for that as well.) At that point it came down to a use of force scenario.

I don’t say this to somehow justify the idea that Wright somehow deserved to be killed even for those transgressions. But if the explanation offered by the officer is true, nobody was resorting to lethal force at that point and they were going to attempt to subdue the suspect with non-lethal means.

The point I’m trying to make here is that while it’s worth having a discussion about whether we too frequently criminalize relatively trivial, though potentially hazardous actions, that overcriminalization was only incidental to the police shooting events being discussed in this article. Daunte Wright could have been observed running a red light, fighting with a neighbor or smoking a joint. It wouldn’t have mattered. The triggering event was the discovery of the outstanding warrants, not an air freshener hanging from a mirror.