Another day, another black man "accidentally" shot and killed by a police officer.
BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. — The suburban Minneapolis police officer who fatally shot a 20-year-old unarmed Black man during a traffic stop Sunday apparently meant to fire a Taser but instead made an “accidental discharge” from her gun, the police chief said Monday.
This is stretching the meaning of accidental beyond the bounds where the word makes sense.
An accidental discharge of a gun would happen if, say, it was lying on a table during an earthquake with the safety off, fell, hit the floor, and somehow the trigger was pulled from all the shaking.
By contrast, this police officer acted in a way that wasn't at all accidental, given her experience and, one must assume, her training.
The officer was identified Monday evening as Officer Kim Potter, who has been with the department for 26 years. She remains on administrative leave, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension announced.
Ah, administrative leave. This is the initial consequence, and sometimes the only consequence, when a police officer kills someone who is unarmed.
Officer Kim Potter gets to spend time at home, working on her excuses for why she killed Daunte Wright, while Wright doesn't get to do anything, having had his life snuffed out at the age of 20 after being pulled over for a traffic violation.
Let's take a look at the dictionary definition of "accidental."
Was Wright's killing unexpected or by chance? Sadly, no.
Police killings of unarmed black men and women are distressingly frequent, so not unexpected. A spinning roulette wheel ends up in a certain position randomly. That isn't the case with a police officer pulling out their gun and firing it at someone. So not by chance.
Words both illuminate and disguise. That's the nature of words, decidedly imperfect abstract reflections of a complex reality that defies simplistic categorizations.
English is in love with nouns. This produces a more static thing-oriented view of reality than other languages, such as classical Chinese, that view reality as processes, actions, movement.
So we say, the shooting was an accident. Or, the car crash was an accident.
This leads to a viewpoint that downplays all of the moving parts of reality that led to the shooting or car crash. Instead, "accident" places the focus on a static happening divorced from a larger span of time and space.
As many commentators much more knowledgeable than I am about systemic racism and police maltreatment of BIPOC individuals have pointed out, our outrage at specific episodes of police brutality needs to take place in a broader context.
The lawyer for Derek Chauvin, who murdered George Floyd, is pointing to details in the prosecution's case that, he hopes, will lead to the acquittal of his client.
If Officer Potter is charged with negligent homicide or manslaughter, the same microscopic attention to what happened with the Daunte Wright traffic stop tragedy will occur.
Which misses the most important point: policing in the United States is massively screwed-up.
So the killings of black men that attract the most attention are the tip of a much larger Failure of Our Justice System iceberg.
We jail a much higher proportion of our population than other countries. Once incarcerated, we treat prisoners badly, focusing on harsh punishment rather than compassionate rehabilitation. Our police departments have become excessively militarized. Too many police officers are unfit to carry a gun, being prone to escalate encounters with citizens in a macho fashion rather than engage in deescalation.
All that doesn't excuse bad behavior by police officers.
But zeroing in on what Derek Chauvin or Kim Potter did, as outrageous as what they did was, can distract from the urgent need to reform policing in ways that, over time, will markedly reduce unnecessary police killings.
No chief of police should ever call a killing "accidental."
Officer Potter wouldn't have needed to pull out a Taser, much less a gun, if she had been operating within a policing environment that viewed the use of force as a last resort, not the first thing that came to mind when she saw Daunte Wright get back in his car after an attempt was made to handcuff him.
Let Wright drive away. Potter and the other officers knew who he was. Probably he was going home. There was no need to Taser him. And there damn well was no need to kill him.