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De Omnibus Dubitandum - Lux Veritas

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

They Shouldn’t Have Died; That Doesn’t Make Them Innocent


Two weeks ago, Daunte Wright’s death sparked another round of protests and calls to defund/abolish the police. A week later, Derek Chauvin’s trial resulting in a guilty verdict has given the U.S. a reprieve from another round of violent riots. Both of these outcomes could have been anticipated: every time a black civilian dies in an encounter with the police, the conversation immediately becomes about police brutality and police reform. I agree there are many things we could do to reform policing in this country — I have discussed a few possibilities here and here. But while excessive policing is a problem, there are two other aspects to the BLM conversation that are ignored by the mainstream: we will always need some policing and law enforcement to protect civilians from criminal behavior, and many of the recent victims who have been held up as martyrs of the BLM movement had been engaged in criminal behavior. 

Daunte Wright had a warrant out for his arrest for carrying an illegal firearm and attempted armed robbery. George Floyd had served several stints in prison. Both men had been accused of armed robbery, attempted in one case and executed in the other. Their final encounters with the police were for non-violent infractions, but their histories of criminal behavior tell a different story. Those histories also indicate that future run-ins with the police were not unlikely.

Ma’khia Bryant, a 16 year old girl shot dead by police in Columbus, Ohio, had been trying to stab another woman. 13 year old Adam Toledo had been firing a handgun in the middle of the night when police were called to the scene. Jacob Blake, left paralyzed from the waist down after an encounter with the police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was attempting to kidnap his children from their mother, who had been awarded custody. In these scenarios, police intervention was warranted.  

There is a difference between overcriminalization and excessive policing on the one hand, and situations where there is a threat of violence and the police are called to protect innocent civilians on the other. As a society, we need to be able to distinguish between the two. Instead we are creating a dichotomy in which the police are always wrong. Over time, this will result in more leeway for criminal behavior and less protection for law-abiding citizens. Meanwhile, with the public poised to distrust the police, odds increase that people will be more likely to resist arrest, and that fraught encounters with the police are more likely to turn violent.

One could argue that Eric Garner should not have been arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes, or that George Floyd should not have been detained for attempting to use a counterfeit bill. But even if we rolled back all of these petty regulations and made a big push to decriminalize non-violent behavior, odds are that we could not have prevented a future altercation between the police and, for example, a young man on the same trajectory as Daunte Wright. 

The Daunte Wright case is a useful example of how quickly situations between civilians and police, which might look cut-and-dried on the surface, become complex. The PR effort to portray Daunte Wright as innocent began immediately: a 20 year old father, pulled over for a petty nonviolent traffic violation, whose only crime is being black. The linked article, from NBC, notes that he was pulled over for driving a car with expired plates and that the situation escalated because he had an air freshener dangling from his rear view mirror. They blithely skip over any mention that there was a pre-existing warrant out for his arrest and don’t say what it was for. In their narrative, what occurred is yet another case of a black man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, now dead for no reason. 

If it had been that simple, the outrage would be warranted and welcome, as with the outrage over the deaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd. Police should not be able to pull you over for having an air freshener on your rear view mirror. Those types of regulations will result in excessive policing, and don’t have foreseeable benefits that protect a community against violence. In an article for Reason Magazine, Billy Binion writes: “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.” Overcriminalization sets the police against the public, creating tension and distrust, when the public genuinely does need law enforcement to protect it from violence.

So perhaps we can all agree that Daunte Wright should not have been pulled over in the first place, in which case he would likely still be alive today.  He would also be alive today if the police officer had used her taser to stop his attempt to flee, which is what she meant to do. Instead, she shot him by mistake. Her body cam footage has her saying, “Holy shit. I shot him.”  The very next day, she resigned from the force. Her actions were horrible and regrettable. But it’s very hard, nearly impossible, to argue that this officer acted out of malicious racism, or even that the incident was evidence of her unconscious bias.

And there is the reason Daunte Wright attempted to flee the scene: the outstanding warrant for his arrest for possession of an illegal firearm, and allegations that he choked and robbed a woman at gunpoint. Those actions are legitimate cause for arrest.

At the same time that BLM wants to abolish the role of policing and holds up men like Daunte Wright as the reason why, NPR is reporting -- just this month -- that President Biden has declared gun violence an “epidemic” and an “international embarrassment” that has to stop. He has proposed new regulations that include “‘red flag’ laws which would enable law enforcement and family members to seek court orders to remove firearms from people determined to be a threat to themselves or others.” Biden has also allocated $5 billion in his “infrastructure” bill for “community-based violence prevention program,” noting that research shows “deaths from gun violence rose significantly in 2020.” 

By these metrics, aren’t young men in possession of an illegal firearm part of the problem, potential perpetrators of “community violence”? How could a community remove guns from its streets except via active police intervention and measures like stop-and-frisk (formerly ended in New York in 2014 after accusations of racial profiling)? How could there be any result other than increasing the number of violent altercations between young men (and women) and the police called upon to enforce gun restrictions — with more of those interactions resulting in more deaths?

The protestors are right about one thing: if our goal is to ensure that citizens with backgrounds and histories like Daunte Wright's never have violent encounters with the police, we might have to, quite literally, abolish the police. However, if our goal is to protect civil society from criminality, the conversation about how the police should deal with people like Daunte Wright -- and Ma’khia Bryant, and Adam Toledo -- suddenly becomes a lot more complicated. The fact is: we will always have laws that punish violent offenders, and those laws will always require enforcement — we can’t have peace if we don’t. 

The BLM movement and the mainstream media have used their momentum to focus exclusively on police reform and reducing the role for policing. There’s much we could do there, but black lives would be equally -- or better -- served by an effort to understand what happens in the lead up to violent encounters with the police in the first place. As long as we focus exclusively on police brutality, we’re treating a symptom and not the problem — and we can expect more deaths like those of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Ma’khia Bryant, and Adam Toledo as confidently as the BLM protestors did.


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