The officer who mistakenly shot Daunte Wright now faces a manslaughter charge. What went wrong and what can we do about the future of police practices ?

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The news is aglow these days with bad news about various failings by police in action. Because we at Here and Sphere support police departments, in principle and as a matter of practical politics, we take up the matter of police reform without animus. We want police officers to succeed, not fail. In that spirit, I will proceed as follows.

Obviously I am upset by the accidental fatal shooting of Daunte Wright in a suburb of Minneapolis. As I see it, the entire course of events involving him and police officers from his local department was one long series of practical errors.

First : why was he, the driver of his mother’s car, out for an errand with his girlfriend, stopped at all ? There seems not to have been a moving violation. It is reported that his car had an obstruction in its rear window. I am not persuaded that such minimal violations of some automobile directions call for a police response. If so, the officers could just as well have sent him a citation by e mail (information available in the records of a Stater’s driver license). Surely an officer’s time and attention are better applied to more serious offenses ?

Second : what was the officer who shot him, mistaking her gun for a taser, doing out on patrol as a 26-year veteran of police work ? Why was she not a supervisor or other management ? Tasers didn’t exist when she was in police academy in 1993 or so. Was she trained recently in the use of a taser ? My suspicion is that she was not so trained; that no one thought it necessary to update her training because today’s officers, trained in taser use, know the difference between gun and taser and just assumed that, as a 26 year veteran, so would she.

Lesson : you should never assume.

Third : what happened during the stop of Mr Wright that made a veteran officer want to tase him ? This was an ordinary traffic stop. I grant that officers will tell you that they hate traffic stops because there’s no telling what the stopped driver might do, and because traffic stops are so ordinary, officers can tend to relax — which can lead to a bad end for them. Perhaps the veteran officer had in fact relaxed and was suddenly surprised by something Wright did that she had not seen coming ? If so, that’s no excuse. The officer who loses focus puts both the driver and herself at risk.

The officer, who resigned her position the next day, now faces a pretty conclusive manslaughter charge. The municipality faces loss of reputation and, likely, a huge wrongful death award against it. And Mr Wright is dead at age 21. All because a veteran officer failed what her job requires. I see this as a tragedy for everyone concerned.

All of the above I have written by way of argument for the sorts of reforms I am now going to plead for. These are not necessarily legislation but more in the manner of regulations pursuant to legislation :

( 1 ) police officers should be retrained regularly, so that updates in police tools and procedures can be learned and mastered. There simply can NOT be a possibility of an officer mistaking a taser for a gun. It has happened before; this case is not unique. That adds to the urgency of my suggestion here.

( 2 ) officers should never tase someone unless the situation is out of control. Because a traffic stop of someone whose habits are unknown can put officers on edge about possible bad stuff, officers should conduct the stop from within their cruiser or squad car and approach the driver only if necessary. Writing a traffic citation does not make such approach necessary. The driver’s license and registration info are online and can be accessed by the officer in her cruiser’s computer. All cruisers now have them. If the driver has an expired license or registration, or both, in some States an arrest is called for. In such case, the officer should wait for backup, or if she is accompanied by a second officer, the second officer should stand directly in front of the stopped vehicle while the other officer approaches from the passenger side. That way the officers can control all but the craziest driver.

( 3 ) Officers should patrol with restraint. If they see a driver committing a mere safety equipment violation, as seems to have been Mr Wright’s case, they can check his driver record to see if he is an habitual offender. If not, why stop him at all ? Just send a citation, if you must, by e mail.

( 4 ) A municipality should prepare a code of patrol regulations in writing, supply each officer with one, and require a written exam to see that the officer understands the regulations and how to apply them. This test should be updated and an update exam given and graded.

( 5 ) Officers should make an effort to know personally the community they will be patrolling. The captain in charge of a police precinct should schedule a public town hall in his precinct from time to time, and his community relations officers should diligently attend — and deliver a report at — monthly meetings of neighborhood associations in the precinct. In Boston, these are standard procedure. they should be standard everywhere.

I do not buy the accusations laid against police forces by activists with ulterior agendas. I oppose unalterably calls to defund police forces or to create public agencies whose enabling legislation gives them an accusatory slant. Police are not our enemy. They are doing a job. The doing is only as good as the job description, the regulations, the force’s morale, and the training. Let us focus on the actual problem, not on chimeras invented by agenda groups or by our own quick-reaction anger

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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