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Daunte Wright was stopped for expired plates, but driving while Black may have been his 'crime'

The police confrontation escalated after officers saw what could have been an air freshener hanging illegally from the rearview mirror.
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The chain of events that ended with yet another fatal police shooting of a Black man in Minnesota began in what has become a typical tragedy — with a traffic stop for a minor infraction.

The man, Daunte Wright, 20, who died Sunday after a run-in with police in a suburb of Minneapolis, was driving an SUV with expired license plates, and he also ran afoul of a Minnesota law that prohibits motorists from hanging air fresheners and other items from their rearview mirrors.

"He was pulled over for having an expired registration on the vehicle," Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said Monday. "When the officer went over, an item hanging from the rearview mirror was spotted."

It was after that, Gannon said, that the officers discovered that a "gross misdemeanor warrant" for Wright's arrest had been issued.

Minutes later, a gunshot rang out, and Wright joined the ranks of other Black motorists who have died after having been pulled over by police, a group that includes Philando Castile, 32, who was fatally shot in 2016 by a suburban Minneapolis police officer after he was stopped for a broken taillight. His final moments were recorded in a powerful video.

Gannon said Monday that he believes the officer meant to pull a Taser in Sunday's shooting but instead pulled her service weapon.

IMAGE: Daunte Wright
Daunte Wright, 20, who was shot and killed by Brooklyn Center, Minn., police during a traffic stop Sunday.Courtesy Wright Family

Former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin is standing trial in Floyd's death, leaving the Twin Cities on high alert and bracing for more mass demonstrations like those that followed Floyd's death last year. Wright's family has hired civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, the lead attorney for Floyd's family, to represent them, as well.

Crump said: "Daunte Wright is yet another young Black man killed at the hands of those who have sworn to protect and serve all of us — not just the whitest among us. As Minneapolis and the rest of the country continue to deal with the tragic killing of George Floyd, now we must also mourn the loss of this young man and father. This level of lethal force was entirely preventable and inhumane."

Studies have found that Black drivers are far more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers are. Not only that, but once they are stopped, Black people are searched nearly twice as often as white drivers, and the searches are less likely to yield illegal drugs and other contraband than searches of white drivers.

Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott, who is Black, said the shooting of Wright was "heartbreaking, unfathomable."

"Our hearts are aching right now, we are in pain right now, and we recognize this couldn't happen at a worse time right now," he said.

Elliott appeared on NBC's "TODAY" show on Tuesday.

"In this country, if you’re black and you get pulled over by the police, you have a very much higher chance of being dead just because you’re black, and just because you’re encountering police," he said. "That is a fact we have to all wrestle with."

"We've seen this far too many times where a young black man or woman is pulled over by police or encounters police and they end up dead. People protesting are asking when will this stop."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said it had "deep concerns that police here appear to have used dangling air fresheners as an excuse for making a pretextual stop, something police do all too often to target Black people."

"While we are waiting to learn more, we must reiterate that police violence and killings of people of color must end, as must the over-policing and racial profiling that are endemic to our white supremacist system of policing," it said.

It was Wright's mother who told reporters at the scene that police stopped her son for having an air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror.

Former Minneapolis police Officer Mylan Masson, retired director of the Law Enforcement Program at Hennepin Technical College, which trains about half of Minnesota's police officers, was among the most prominent policing experts in Minnesota to condemn the use of force that resulted in Floyd's death.

But in the case of Wright, Masson said, so far it appears that Brooklyn Center police had adequate reason to pull over Wright's SUV, and she said dangling anything from a rearview mirror is a violation.

"Often, it's people with handicapped parking placards who forget to take them down who get pulled over," she said. "So yes, it's a reason to stop somebody. But, heavens to Betsy, not everybody gets stopped for that."

Asked why police would pull over Black motorists for minor infractions while a racially charged trial was going on just 14 miles away, Masson said, "They still have to do their jobs."

"Yes, it's a mundane reason for stopping somebody," she said. "But I think we need to wait until we know what really happened before we pass judgment. It's tragic on both sides."

Police are trained to look for violations, but they also bring to the job the same prejudices and false perceptions about crime that the general public holds, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

"While recruits enter the profession with the same unfortunate stereotypes present overall in society, these prejudices, even subconscious ones, can be further elevated later by such things as peer validation, poor training and unfounded fears to create disastrous outcomes in highly charged situations," said Levin, who walked a beat in Harlem as a New York City police officer before he became an academic.

Wright's death also coincided with reports that two Virginia police officers are being sued, accused of threatening to execute Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario during a traffic stop — and blasting him with pepper spray.

They pulled over Nazario, who is Black and Latino, for not having license plates on his newly purchased SUV even though a new vehicle tag was clearly visible in the rear window.