Armed and Dangerous
On Sunday afternoon, April 11, Kim Potter, a twenty-six-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center (MN) Police Department, pulled over a white car for expired tags. The driver of the car, Duante Wright, was only twenty years old. Within minutes, he would be dead at the hands of Potter, who now alleges that she mistakenly grabbed her gun instead of her Taser while trying to drag him out of his car.
On Wednesday, April 14, Potter was charged with second-degree manslaughter, one of the lesser charges that could have been applied. Since Wright’s death, crowds have been gathering in Brooklyn Center, a Minneapolis suburb, mourning and protesting yet another death at the hands of police in the beleaguered city. The protesters stand about ten miles northwest of the center of Minneapolis, where police officer Derek Chauvin faces similar charges, accused of murdering George Floyd. In the days to come, the trial of one police officer will conclude while the investigation of another begins.
Even with this surfeit of cop-caused misery, it is hard to predict whether America will change its ways. The killing of innocent Black men by police officers, their last moments captured on body-cams and phone cameras and all other sorts of cameras, has been absorbed as a matter of course by a population inured to violence. Some might note the bizarre imbalance of it all: police officers guarding the U.S. Capitol maimed because they were not armed sufficiently; officers like Kim Potter armed with Tasers and guns for the purpose of traffic stops for expired plates. The fate of Potter will be decided in a courtroom; the fate of all the other over-armed police officers is a question of policy—that is, a question of whether states and cities can summon the will to reduce the harm inflicted on a society when it is hostage to the bullets of police officers who roam the streets.
The bullets in those guns need never be deployed to terrify—and yet they frequently are. I discovered this on one cold afternoon in the late aughts, when I was driving on Interstate 65 North through Indiana in my Toyota with my then-six-year-old daughter in the back seat. The next day was Thanksgiving, and per a custody agreement that had taken years to finalize, I was to deposit my child with her father at Midway Airport in Chicago. We were almost three hours into the drive. We had made good time, but my daughter was getting cranky and needed to use the bathroom. I was trying to figure out whether to stop and find a restroom or push on to Midway where she could use the restrooms at the airport.
I was leaning toward the latter when I saw the dreaded lights in my rearview mirror. Within seconds, the police car drew closer and closer to get me to pull over. A few hundred feet in front of me, I could see the exit for a town called Hobart, and I felt the off ramp would be the safest place to pull over. The lights and sirens of the patrol car blared as my car slowed, covering the distance to the ramp. I pulled over. Before the police officer could get to me, I turned around and smiled at my daughter. “It’s all good,” I told her, “he is just going talk to me, and we will be just fine.” I didn’t want her to be afraid of the police officer who was approaching. I placed my hands on the steering wheel, as cops like you to do.
The truth was that I had no idea why I was being pulled over. I hadn’t been speeding, and there wasn’t anything wrong with the car when I gave it the once-over before getting on the road. By now the police officer, a stocky middle-aged man with a mustache, was at my window. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” he asked as he looked into our car, taking me in in a manner that made me uncomfortable in some inchoate way. He peered into the back at my daughter, looking solemn in her pink coat, her pink suitcase next to her. “License and registration,” he asked, reaching out his hand. I handed him the documents, smiling as if I was happy to see him. His fingers brushed mine and lingered an extra second. I swallowed hard.
It was my plates; they were expired. “I cannot let you back on the interstate with expired plates,” he declared as he handed the papers back. “I have to order your car towed and you have to call someone to come take you home.” I looked at the clock; it was 4:23, or rather 3:23, owing to the peculiar Indiana idiosyncrasy that leaves most of the state in the Eastern time zone, but not the northwestern corner, where I was now on Central time. Whatever the time may have been, the light felt dim. In the minutes that followed, I beseeched him to let me go. We’re so far from home, I told him, and I had a small child with me. “Where would we go?” I demanded; it would be hours before someone could come get us.
Then he ordered me to get out of my car with my daughter and her suitcase and stand by the side of I-65.
He pursed his lips. “Ma’am,” he said slowly, looking at me in that same discomfiting way, “those are not my problems. I am here to enforce the law.” Then he ordered me to get out of my car with my daughter and her suitcase and stand by the side of I-65. He was going to call a tow truck to get my car. If I had been surprised at his bizarre insistence that I could not continue to drive, I was now bewildered. I started yelling, “How could you ask a mother and her child to stand by the side of the Interstate on a cold day?” I had made a mistake with the expired plates, I pleaded, I would pay the fine, I would even pay a double fine, if he could please, please let us go.
He did not let me go. I had to leave the car along with my daughter and stand on the shoulder just into the off-ramp. There we stood in the cold chill of November, my daughter clutching her suitcase between us. The police officer retreated to his own patrol car. He was going to wait until the tow truck arrived, but he would not let us wait in the car until that time. I could see him staring at us, leering at our visible distress as holiday motorists whizzed past.
Maybe ten or fifteen minutes later he left his car and came back over to me. “I don’t have to do this,” he said. “I don’t have to do this at all, especially since you’ve been so rude.” He paused as if amused at his characterization of our exchange. “But I am going to do you a huge favor.” The favor he was going to do, I soon learned, was to drive us to the Hobart Branch of the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. “They’re open for another half hour,” he said, as if offering up a pot of gold. “You can pay for your tags and get the new sticker.”
We had little choice but to get into the back of his patrol car, behind the bars that separated him from us. “I’m a nice guy,” he kept saying. “I don’t have to do this, but I felt like helping you out.” Every time he said it, I worried more. If you actually were a “nice guy,” you wouldn’t have to say it so many times. In his imagination, however, he was a nice guy, and I was the errant civilian. In the back of the car, clutching my daughter’s hand and nauseous with fear, I tried to hold back tears.
We drove to the Hobart BMV. Standing in front of the woman who was issuing the new tags, I considered telling her what was happening, that a police officer had forced me out of my car, that he was waiting outside. But I did not know how to tell her why he scared me or how to explain my terror. I paid for my tags, she handed them to me, and I put them in my purse—all of it an interlude of normality in an otherwise frightening encounter. I told myself everything was okay; he would drive me back to the car and all this would be over.
Outside, he was waiting. His car was parked at a distance from the BMV. “I have the tags,” I told him as I got back in the car, a decision that seems so stupid every time I have thought of it since. But in that moment, I felt that I had paid the fine, I was no longer breaking any law. This would be over in just a bit. “Are you going to take us back to the car?” I asked him. He smiled. “Eventually,” he said, and my heart sank. “The car has been towed,” he said. “And because I am a nice guy, I will take you there,” he laughed.
The houses and shops disappeared and there were only cornfields. Dusk began to descend, and my heart dropped. “Where are you taking us?” I kept asking.
Before he could do this, he told me, I had to get money to pay for the towing, which I could only do in cash. Because he was a “nice guy,” he would even drive me to the ATM. Off we went, and I was instructed to withdraw four hundred dollars, incidentally the maximum for one transaction. I looked up into the camera and wondered if this would be the last time I was seen alive. Back again in the car, we made our way to the tow yard where the car allegedly was. In the back of the patrol car, I took my daughter’s hand in mine and caressed it. I smiled, determined to keep it together. We passed by the business district of Hobart, a town that is not very far from Gary, Indiana, which was for a time the murder capital of the country (it is now number three). It is also Michael Jackson’s birthplace, the town whose decrepitude made him ensure he would not fail and be forced to return to it. Boarded-up shopfronts zipped by our windows followed by dilapidated homes, some with faded and broken toys strewn in their careworn front yards. We passed a school; we passed a church.
And then there was nothing left to see. The houses and shops disappeared, and there were only cornfields. Dusk began to descend, and my heart dropped. “Where are you taking us?” I kept asking. He never responded. Minutes passed: five, ten, fifteen. I began to realize that he could not have been taking us to any towing yard. There was just nothing around us. I no longer had any idea where we were.
About twenty minutes later, he turned onto a gravel road. There in the distance was a decrepit trailer. We drove toward it, and I noted that this was not a tow yard. I had wondered whether this man was following any sort of procedure, whether any of this was even legal. Now I felt completely doomed. My car was nowhere in sight. “Where are we?” I yelled from the back, in a sharp high-pitched voice that sounded strange and alien. We pulled up behind the house, and he parked at an angle that hid the patrol car from the road out front. “Get out,” he ordered gruffly. As we did, a man without a shirt, dirty and unkempt, emerged from the trailer. He stared at me and then at my daughter and nodded to the officer. “Give me the money,” the officer demanded. I handed over the four hundred dollars.
It was then that I saw my car. There it stood, behind a thicket of bushes behind the house, almost entirely (and deliberately) shielded from view. The cop walked up to the man and said something I could not hear. I wanted to stay away from the house itself. The two laughed, and the man handed over a set of keys—my keys. The cop came over and handed them to me, ran his hand over my face and said, “You got lucky.” Keys in hand, I ran to my car, dragging my daughter and the pink suitcase. We almost tumbled in, and I drove out of the strange place, not sure where to go, still disbelieving that we could escape this police officer.
I didn’t cry until after I had dropped off my daughter in Chicago. Then I bawled, loudly and angrily. I could not understand what had happened; my fear of this police officer had been real and palpable, and I had been brought into terrible close proximity to a danger I could not articulate. I felt certain then and still that it was the presence of my daughter that had thrown off a plan centered on taking a woman hostage. I had witnessed how easy coercion can be for a cop with a gun. Even when I realized the danger I was in, or later when I was no longer in this danger, I had not known what to do. I did not know if you could call the police on the police. I did not know what to say.
We get painful confirmation in the never-ending news cycle that any Black man confronted by a cop has reason to fear for his life. Women confronted by police officers, flaunting their guns and their power, are also terribly vulnerable. Putting on a uniform after a year or two of training does not create the righteous authority figure; it does create potential for abuse, assault, and even murder. Police officers like the one I encountered, a man whose main task was issuing speeding tickets, should not have deadly weapons. The officer I encountered enjoyed, even reveled in my fear—a fear that grew directly out of the fact that he held a weapon that could kill me or kill my child. He could always make up the reasons later, knowing police officers get the benefit of the doubt.
Despite the years that have passed, I am still harrowed by the incident. The families of Duante Wright and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so very many more do not have to wonder. They can only mourn and wait until murderous cops are punished, until we realize that giving all police officers deadly weapons is a constant—and unacceptable—threat to public safety.