Lethal force

As I parked my car in the grocery store parking lot last night I noticed a car parked next to mine had a face mask hanging from the rear view mirror. I’m not sure why it caught my eye, but at first I thought it might be a dream catcher or some colorful feathers - common objects hanging from rear view mirrors in many cars back in South Dakota where we lived for many years. This was a colorful face mask, however, and it seemed like a convenient place to put a face mask. We carry extra face masks in our car, and I often remove my face mask as I slide into the driver’s seat. I don’t like things hanging from my rear view mirror, however, so sometimes I place mine on the dash board. More often, I slide it into the center console.

I probably wouldn’t have thought much about it except the news of the fatal shooting of a black man by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota is being covered by nearly every major news source and part of the coverage is that the man who died called his mother as he was pulled over by police and said that he had been pulled over for having an air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror.

It is important to note that I do not know what happened in that tragic event. The investigation is not yet completed. I choose not to watch the video clips that are circulating on the Internet. I’ve witnessed enough trauma in my life to be careful about what I watch. I don’t need to see someone getting shot. I live in a place distant from those particular events and I will reserve judgement for the time being.

What I do know is that in many states there is a law prohibiting hanging items from the rear view mirror. The law is intended to prevent items from obscuring the vision of the driver. It seems like common sense than anything dangling in the windshield could present a danger. I also know that people have been hanging everything from fuzzy dice to air fresheners to dream catchers to face masks from their rear view mirrors and the practice has been going on since before I obtained my driver’s license.

I also know that police officers don’t go into the profession because they want to have the job of enforcing little rules like whether or not someone hangs an item from their rear view mirror.

Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon told reporters in a news conference that Daunte Wright was fatally shot after an officer meant to use a Taser, but mistakenly drew her gun instead. According to news reports, the officer yelled, “Taser, Taser, Taser” - standard police procedure before firing a taser - just before the shot was fired.

I have no idea how a 26-year veteran police officer, who received recurrent training in the use of firearms and tasers, made that particular mistake. Officers have to make very rapid judgments and learn to act quickly and decisively under tension. They are also human beings who experience fear and panic and who make mistakes. And when a person carries lethal force as a tool of one’s occupation, a mistake can be fatal as is painfully and terribly evident in the story as it has been reported.

I know that a 20-year-old man is capable of making poor choices and that the fear of being pulled over and questioned by armed police officers can cause someone to react poorly to the situation. People often attempt to run away from police officers even though doing so doesn’t result in getting away and usually makes the situation worse.

I have many friends who are police officers and sheriff’s deputies. I’ve invested years of my life as a law enforcement chaplain. I know that there are some very good and honorable people who have chosen law enforcement as a career for some very good reasons. I also know that for a law enforcement officer, the choice to carry lethal force includes accepting the possibility that one will use lethal force. Having a gun on your duty belt means accepting the responsibility that you might one day kill another human being. Regardless of the circumstances of such an action, doing so is a drastic and traumatic event. There is an argument that can be made that the use of lethal force is sometimes necessary and that killing a person can be the best choice in certain circumstances. People imagine that weapons will only be used to prevent further violence and death. They think in terms of saving lives, not taking lives. A car driven at or over another person can be a lethal weapon. Fleeing the scene of an investigation can be an act of violence and cause danger to innocent people.

In the second it takes to unholster a weapon and squeeze a trigger a life was ended. A family is plunged into grief and trauma. A community is set on edge and violence spills out into the streets. An officer’s career is effectively ended. It is a high price to pay for the enforcement of minor traffic violations.

As I drove home from the grocery store I observed a vehicle failing to stop before making a right turn on a red light. The vehicle pulled out in front of my vehicle close enough that I had to brake and take evasive action to avoid a collision. I also observed a vehicle changing lanes without signaling, another with a brake light that was not functioning properly, and several vehicles traveling in excess of the 25 mile per hour speed limit on the street. I don’t know if the person driving the car with the face mask hanging from the mirror removed the mask before driving. I am not convinced that our society requires officers wearing body armor and carrying lethal force to respond to those violations of the law.

Reading the story of the end of the life of Daunte Wright breaks my heart.