The question of how veteran Minnesota police Officer Kim Potter could mistake her gun for a Taser has dominated discourse about the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright so much that, experts say, the true driver of police violence has gone overlooked.
Turning a sharp focus to training and Tasers ignores the limits of reform, reinforces the idea that some officers are simply “bad apples” and distracts from efforts to deeply contend with the incendiary nature of policing as an institution, according to thinkers and leaders like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
“The conversation about training and the use of Tasers misses the larger culture of policing that sees lethal force as the ultimate tool to suppress crime,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “As long as we keep talking about individual police officers, we’ll keep making for a broken and sick society. Clearly, policing has reached the level of a public health crisis. It’s not just in the shooting of unarmed people. It’s also in the everyday assaults, brutalities and indignities that people face.”
Former Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon — who, along with Potter, resigned his week — said police pulled Wright over for driving with expired plates Sunday afternoon and discovered that there was a warrant out for his arrest. Wright’s mother, Katie, said that she spoke to her son during the traffic stop and that he told her police pulled him over because he had air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror, which is a violation. Police said Wright tried to flee when they tried to arrest him and Potter shot him in the chest.
Potter was charged with second-degree manslaughter Wednesday. The killing has only prompted more protest in the area where former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was charged in the killing of George Floyd and is standing trial. Floyd’s death prompted the state to pass massive police reform legislation, providing guidance on use of force to training. This action followed calls for more police training, which are routinely heard after high-profile incidents of violence. Democrats and Republicans alike proposed legislation calling for more training in the wake of Floyd’s death.However, experts say, simply increasing officer training won’t end police violence.
“Crime has been narrowly defined within the poorest communities of color in the United States. The function of police, then, is to control poor populations of color with either the threat or use of violence with impunity. No amount of training will yield different results as long as that’s what policing was built to do,” Muhammad said.
Potter, who had worked as a police officer for 26 years, had even served on the force’s negotiation team. She was acting as a field training officer, training a new officer, when she shot Wright, according to the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis.
Minnesota requires its officers to undergo at least 1,000 hours of basic training. The training includes criminal and traffic codes, in-progress crimes, firearms use, domestic disputes, sexual assault, traffic stops and evidence training, according to the Star-Tribune. Officers must also complete 48 additional hours of training every three years.
A 2018 report from the Minnesota advisory committee on policing practices said officers lacked extensive instruction in crisis intervention, cultural sensitivity and procedural justice. The committee noted that $1.5 million had been allotted to “racial sensitivity” training. But research has shown that even implicit bias training has no discernible impact on specifically curbing police violence.
“Implicit bias training can be extremely effective in the short-term, however the issue is that it does not have lasting effects,” the report said. The report included testimony from Jason Sole, former president of the Minneapolis NAACP, who said training isn’t a “catch all.”
“Some people can’t be trained,” Sole said. “It’s not a silver bullet. Some of these things will help and change the system on some levels but we got to understand what we’re up against.”
In the wake of Wright’s death, a “Thin Blue Line” flag waved outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department, a symbol that has come to represent policing as more than a job and as an alliance in direct opposition to racial justice movements.
“Daunte Wright’s killing was not a random, disconnected ‘accident’ – it was the repeated outcome of an indefensible system that grants impunity for state violence, rewards it w/ endlessly growing budgets at the cost of community investment, & targets those who question that order,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a tweet Tuesday.
It’s this system that abolitionists have been highlighting in mainstream discourse since before last summer’s uprisings and the resulting popularity of the “defund the police” demand. “We are not proposing to abandon our communities to violence. We are naming policing as a form of violence that we all experience,” Andrea Ritchie, a researcher for Interrupting Criminalization at Barnard College and author of “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color,” said previously.
Still, the fatal shooting has turned the nation’s attention not to the violent history of policing or its systemic harms but to Tasers. A 2018 study from the University of Chicago found no evidence that Tasers reduce police violence; instead, they protect police more than the public.
Steve Tuttle, a spokesperson for Taser manufacturer Axon Enterprise, told CNBC that Tasers were never meant to replace guns — “you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight,” he said — but were meant to reduce death by temporarily disabling people. That is borne out by the data. The study found that police didn’t largely substitute Tasers for guns and that the number of injuries to civilians was not affected by having more Tasers. For scholars like Muhammad, such research only confirms what critics of policing have long known.
“I would prefer to see the diminution of police officers and the amount of work that they do,” Muhammad said. “I don’t have confidence that the existing members of the larger law enforcement community today are able to be retrained out of how they’ve been socialized into policing. We need to give them less to do and diminish the public’s exposure to them. Or we need to start over with a different set of safety actors who have not been socialized into this punitive legal culture.”