Resistance Shouldn't always be Futile...or Fatal
Updated: Apr 20, 2021
It doesn't happen often, but when it does, the result is tragic. A police officer mistakenly draws a Glock, when she thought she was drawing a Taser. This is what appears to have occurred during a traffic stop-gone-wrong in Brooklyn Center, MN on April 11, 2021; and it left 20-year old Daunte Wright -- an African American man -- dead in his vehicle.
One needn't be a justice scholar to know that our criminal justice system overly involves people and communities of color. Both tend to be over-policed, over-prosecuted, and over-sanctioned. But when evaluating police use of force, or deadly force, it's important to separate systemic processes from individual encounters. And in this encounter, there seems little to no evidence that then-Officer Kim Potter intended to shoot Mr. Wright -- or perhaps more to the point, that this White officer intended to shoot this Black man.
But how to hold policing accountable while not vilifying an individual officer whose irrevocable error stemmed from an antiquated coercion-driven paradigm?
Mistakenly drawing her firearm instead of her Taser might have been a simple muscle memory error, which can result from police departments' emphasis on firearm training at the expense of Taser training (i.e., too much drawing with the dominant hand in training situations); It could have been a so-called "capture error," which can result when people employ the same responses in situations that look similar to one another, but that require different solutions; and it could have been task overload -- understandable when considering Potter was trying to manage an apparently non-compliant suspect while also being responsible for at least one police trainee.
But these explanations miss the key question: Why did Officer Potter intend to use her Taser at all? Tasing the driver of a vehicle is something the Taser manual itself discourages because of the possible ripple effects -- i.e., that the driver might crash the car and kill or injure someone. It appears evident that Mr. Wright was not immediately cooperative with Officer Potter. But it seems equally evident that a growing number of African American drivers are wary to submit to police stops for fear of being shot. George Floyd certainly expressed that fear to Derek Chauvin; and in December 2020, another African American driver echoed that same apprehension during a vehicle stop in Virginia. The problem is, policing hasn't yet come to terms with this emergent reality.
Police officers are trained and socialized to meet all forms of resistance with increased coercion. They -- unlike the military, to whom they are frequently and inaccurately compared -- are rarely taught the value of a tactical retreat, or simply stepping back and allowing a suspect to leave the scene. The typical police use of force matrix matches the degree of citizen resistance to a corresponding level of police coercion. That's a mistake because it erroneously turns police-citizen encounters into a math problem. "Solving" for resistance isn't as simple as an "insert-this-level-of-force-here" solution might imply. Sometimes, the best response to low-grade resistance is a non-response. Officer Potter should have read Mr. Wright's lack of cooperation for what it was: A young adult male with an attitude who didn't want to deal with a cop intending to take him to jail. Importantly, he didn't appear to be armed, and he wasn't actively aggressive toward officers. He simply wasn't having it. And despite everything that's happened since Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, policing continues to operate, business-as-usual, despite the harm officers sometimes cause for needlessly forcing confrontations.
But business-as-usual won't cut it anymore. The police need to adjust their use-of-force matrix to allow for some degree of resistance without resorting to the Taser or deadly force. And they need to revise their incentive systems to reward officers who decide to employ something akin to a tactical retreat when they judge that forcing a conflict would likely lead to an unnecessary escalation of violence.
Had Officer Potter allowed Mr. Wright to leave the scene, it would have cost her and society nothing. She and a few other officers could have visited Mr. Wright later that day or evening -- probably at home or at his work -- after he had cooled down; and they could have arrested him on his outstanding warrant, as well as a new one for resisting arrest and failing to comply with a police officer, both of which are misdemeanors in Minnesota. In the end, the police would have their man. And Mr. Wright would have his life.
When "resistance is futile" becomes "resistance is fatal," it's time to revisit the police mindset that forces lethal confrontations for crimes that carry something less than the death penalty, which is precisely what Mr. Wright received on April 11th.
Robert J. Kane is Professor and Head, Department of Criminology and Justice Studies at Drexel University, and the coauthor of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department. His current book, Policing Beyond Coercion: A 'New' Idea for a 21st Century Mandate (Wolters Kluwer), is due out in late 2022. Follow on Twitter @rjohnkane