Daunte Wright: Policing and Accountability
Cross post from the Uehiro Centre's Practical Ethics blog. Co-written with Jake Wojtowicz.
On April 11th, Daunte Wright was pulled over by police in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. Shortly afterwards, he was shot and killed by police officer Kim Potter. Police Chief Tim Gannon described this as an ‘accidental discharge’. But framing events like this as accidents can be misleading and is just one way the police may insulate themselves from appropriate accountability.
The word ‘accident’ can bring to mind what we might call ‘sheer accidents’: bad fortune, acts of god, cars hitting the ice and veering off of the road. Even the language of an ‘accidental discharge’ can sound like Potter had the gun in her hand and it just somehow went off. But that isn’t what happened. Potter pointed the gun at Wright and pulled the trigger. She claims she meant to fire her taser.
Sometimes, the fact that something is an accident means we aren’t at fault. Philosopher Bernard Williams imagines a lorry driver who drives safely yet kills a child who runs out in front of his truck. Williams suggests that while the driver wasn’t reckless or malicious, there is a moral importance to acknowledging that he still killed someone. That it was an accident doesn’t change this, even if might change the attribution of fault.
Williams’s lorry driver case has implications in this case. It is also dissimilar in important ways. Perhaps in very stressful situations, somebody might accidentally, and faultlessly, grab the wrong weapon. But that isn’t what happened: the situation Potter was in was (for her) low-stakes and commonplace. So what level of fault was involved? Potter clearly erred: she drew a pistol rather than a taser. Wright’s family and loved ones deserve to know why. But there are broader questions, too: to what extent do officers in the USA rely on their firearms? Is there an institutional culture in American police forces where firearms are not treated with the requisite respect? Are the weapons too easily confused? Minneapolis’s Star Tribune and The New York Times have probed these issues in more depth.
Fully understanding what went wrong is clearly an empirical issue, but how we go about understanding and reacting to what went wrong is an ethical issue. When there are failures like this, people need to be held accountable. That doesn’t always mean they need to be punished. Rather, they need to be able to offer an explanation for what happened, a chance to justify or excuse their behaviour, and only then does punishment become an issue. Being held to account, and offering an explanation for what happened, is valuable in at least three ways.
For one, it helps identify problems and might help to prevent future tragedies. Secondly, it gives victims the explanations that they deserve. Finally, being held to account is a privilege of agents. When we hold moral agents accountable, we give them the opportunity to offer reasons for what they have done. With a sheer accident or a natural occurrence, we seek explanations; but when an agent has acted in some way, we want to hear their reasons, including, potentially, their justifications and excuses. By holding someone accountable, we treat them as a moral agent. Holding Potter accountable, then, is important not only because it is owed to Wright and his family, but also because it is part of what it means for Potter to be a moral agent.
Potter has been charged with manslaughter. But it is worth reflecting on how many police officers do not face any such charges, and how often police escape any real accountability. This lack of accountability also means a lack of assurance for the public, and in particular for Black Americans, that such killings won’t happen again. And it also means a failure to give victims (or their families) a sense of justice. Finally, the failure to hold officers to account broadcasts a message: we don’t need to justify ourselves to you. But in doing so, they fail to present as rational agents and are instead a force that acts on people, people who cannot complain or demand justifications.
We want to end on one final point about accidents. Williams has another insight that is relevant to this case. His lorry driver is not at fault. But, says Williams, the driver is justified in feeling terrible about what he has done. And even though he was not at fault, it would still be appropriate to apologise to the child’s family, and to explain what happened. Thus, the appeal to the ‘accidental’ nature of Wright’s shooting does not remove the need for an apology, or his family’s right to an explanation. Even those who were involved in accidents but were not at fault do, and often should, feel the need to make amends. Potter’s resignation statement made no apology to Wright’s family, she made no reference to remorse, instead, she said that she ‘loved every minute’ of being a police officer. By failing to apologise, or attempting reparative steps, police officers demonstrate a lack of concern for the community they claim to serve. People laud the bravery of police officers. But to do harm, even accidentally, and to fail to acknowledge that harm is a form of moral cowardice.
 One further issue we’ve not touched on, but which is a central moral factor in this case, is the structural racism which pervades criminal justice in the United States.