Brooklyn Center could be coming to your hometown — our hometown. Let’s pray not, for it will destroy lives, disrupt local businesses and governments, and add fuel to the firestorm of race-related protests that have occurred across the nation since Ferguson in 2014.
Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, was known to few of us before last week’s police shooting of an unarmed young Black man. Now, it will take years for it to recover its community, its governing institutions and its reputation. Brooklyn Center is located between the Twin Cities and the Mississippi River. It’s population of 30,000 is about half white and 25% Black. Several families will never recover.
On April 11, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was killed by police officer Kim Potter, a 26-year veteran of the local police department, when she grabbed her service revolver rather than her Taser in what is described as a routine traffic stop. Officers said Wright had expired tags on his license plate. After a quick conversation, she reportedly thought he was pulling away and she grabbed his shirt before yelling, “Taser, Taser,” shooting him and instantly yelling, “Holy shit, I shot him.”
So far, there have been nightly protests, with rioting and looting, resulting in police using tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets to disperse protests violating the 10 p.m. curfew. Protesters built barricades for protection and threw bottles and full soup cans at the police.
Ironically, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, is 10 miles from former police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial for killing George Floyd, which is being televised around the world. The testimony of onlookers pleading for Chauvin to get off his neck and the expert medical witnesses has been difficult to watch. To be honest, the last time I felt as powerlessly outraged was watching the Los Angeles riots in April 1992 after the acquittal of the police officers who had beaten Rodney King.
The racial justice protests, even those turning violent, are understandable. Many African Americans feel “over-policed and under-protected.” Repeated incidents of law enforcement and vigilante justice killings of Black men after alleged minor incidences are legendary in America — from James Scott’s lynching in Columbia in 1923 to Emmett Till’s brutal murder in Mississippi in 1955 to Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 — and contribute to a pattern of racial injustice that is impossible for a reasonable citizen to overlook in 2021.
The Washington Post’s database of known fatal shootings by the police reports roughly 1,000 people a year are shot and killed by police. That’s more than three a day. African Americans are 13% of the population but about 25% of those killings. Ninety-five percent are men, half of whom are between 20 and 40 years old.
Potter, the police officer in Brooklyn Center, resigned her position and has been charged with second-degree manslaughter — which means she is thought to be culpably negligent in the death of Wright. That seems appropriate. It is unlikely the incident was premeditated but calling it an “accident” trivializes the incident. I would call it a “mistake,” but one for which the officer needs to be held accountable. Her mistake has traumatized the local community, young Black men and many African Americans across the country.
African Americans are justified in their distrust of police. There needs to be more accountability and more de-escalation-focused police practice. National protests in response to any police killing are now likely to continue because of national media attention, cell phone recordings and the empowerment of Black political organizations. With more than 15,000 local sheriff and police departments in a country of more than 330 million people, police shootings will continue at the rate of 1,000 per year unless drastic policy change takes place.
Here are necessary corrective actions:
1. Establish a Presidential Commission chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris with the national goal of reducing police shootings by 50% in five years. The Commission need not reinvent the wheel because as I wrote a year ago, lots of police reforms have been proposed and analyzed. Instead, the Commission will need to make reducing police killings a priority and incentivize local departments to follow through.
2. Examine and reform police practices. The Missouri Senate’s proposed Senate Bill 60 that eliminates chokeholds is a good start. We should eliminate potentially volatile police stops for minor violations without reducing traffic enforcement by ticketing cars for expired tags at the mall and in parking lots.
3. Increase African American trust in police by showing substantial improvement in hiring of Black police officers and administrators. The trust gap cannot be reduced once a police shooting has occurred. Promoting racial justice in policing begins with getting more African Americans and other nonwhites involved.
4. Police officer associations and criminal justice officials at all levels could contribute to increasing trust in the criminal justice system by admitting there is a problem and increasing transparency. Police associations, aka unions, should not be allowed to dictate police practices. The public interest requires more police accountability.
With closing arguments in Minnesota’s other police killing trial, the Floyd murder, to begin Monday, the nation will be on edge for the next week or two. No town wants to be the next Brooklyn Center. The best time to address this issue was about 100 years ago; the next-best time is today.