Traffic Stops and Police Brutality: Reflecting on the Death of Daunte Wright

by Katherine Noble



Daunte Wright was shot and killed on Sunday, April 11th, by a Minnesota police officer. Wright was a father of a two-year-old, Daunte Jr., and voted “class clown” in his high school yearbook. Kim Potter, the police officer who fatally shot Wright during a traffic stop, has now been charged with second-degree manslaughter. In a body camera video, Potter yells out “Taser!” several times before fatally shooting Wright with her gun. Potter was accompanied by two other officers and reported pulling Wright over for expired registration, although Wright’s mother has stated that her son was pulled over for having an air freshener on his rear view mirror.


This is not the first time a “routine” traffic stop has killed a Black person. Traffic stops offer a clear example on racial bias in policing. Studies have found significant disparities in treatment of Black people during traffic stops. In an analysis of North Carolina traffic stops, Black people were about 95% more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts. Black people were also 115% more likely than white people to be searched during a traffic stop.


For Black people and all people of color, these “routine” stops have deadly consequences.


Philando Castile was also killed during a traffic stop in 2016. Between 2002 and 2016, Castile was stopped 52 times. He was cited with 86 minor traffic offenses, but most of the charges were ultimately dropped. On the day he was killed, Officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled Castile over because Castile, his girlfriend, and their four-year-old child “just look[ed] like people who were involved in a robbery.” After a brief exchange, Castile informed Yanez that he had a firearm in the vehicle. Yanez told Castile not to reach for his gun. Yanez then opened fire and shot Castile in the chest five times.


Racial bias varies from city to city. In Minneapolis, Black drivers are five times more likely to be stopped by police than white ones. In Chicago and San Francisco, Black drivers were four times more likely to be stopped than white drivers. Across the board, white drivers are more likely to be found with contraband.


Footage of another violent traffic stop that occurred in early December went viral this month, resulting in Virginia officials announcing they had fired a police officer, Joe Gutierrez. Gutierrez aggressively pepper-sprayed a Black Latino US Army Medical Corps lieutenant, Lt. Caron Nazario, during a traffic stop.


Nazario was driving a new car that had not yet received license plates, and he had taped temporary ones to his rear window. When police tried to pull him over, Nazario signaled compliance and then drove for less than a mile so he could stop in a well-lit public place. Nazario then set his cellphone on the dashboard to insure a record of the interaction. Gutierrez and his companion officer Daniel Crocker drew their weapons, and Nazario raised his arms, asking why he was being stopped. Gutierrez repeatedly threatened Nazario with violence before telling Crocker to back up and spraying Nazario in the face with pepper spray. When Nazario exited his car, the officers wrestled him to the ground. Nazario is now suing Gutierrez and Crocker for violating his constitutional rights against unreasonable seizure, illegal search, and excessive force.


Adam Toledo, a thirteen year old child from Chicago, was fatally shot by Eric Stillman on March 29th. Toledo was accompanied by 21-year-old Ruben Roman. Roman reportedly fired shots during the night, and police responded to multiple 911 calls. Police tackled and arrested Roman, before yelling at Toledo to stop running away. Toledo stopped, dropped the weapon he was holding, and raised his hands. Then Stillman shot him. Toledo was a seventh grader.


When I searched the phrase “Daunte Wright” in preparation for this article, the first two things to pop up were Fox News articles discussing the criminal history of Mr. Wright. Innocence or lack thereof does not determine someone’s right to life. Wright was a father, son, and brother who had as much right as anyone to live.


I have to wonder: what justification can be made by those who consider innocence a determining factor for the violent dehumanization and assault Lt. Nazario suffered? He was not breaking the law. He has dedicated his life to serving the U.S. government by working as a military doctor. And he is repaid by his country with violence and degradation.


Daunte Wright, Philando Castile, and every other person killed by police should be alive today. Lt. Caron Nazario and every other Black man driving home should not have to live in fear. Police should not have the ability to play judge, jury, and executioner.


Traffic stops consistently result in violence and death for marginalized persons. If this were to happen for any other group of people, we would regard it as a much more serious issue. So what has to change? What are we going to do about the rights of our fellow humans being stripped away?


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