Why Did Daunte Die?
An active duty officer breaks down the deadly encounter, and explains what police (and the public) must do to avoid such shootings in the future
I spent time in Minneapolis earlier this month, speaking with people about their concerns over the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial. Citizens seemed pitched between hope and dread; if the verdict did not satisfy, they worried their city would again burn. Then Daunte Wright was killed in a police shooting, in nearby Brooklyn Center, a death that city’s police department characterized as an “accidental discharge.” The advent of another black man being killed by another white officer, while the trial over George Floyd’s death was still in session, seemed impossibly fraught, and, to me, mystifying. How does such a thing happen? I decided to ask.
Below, an active duty officer writing under the byline Philosopher Cop gives their perspective on the shooting and explains how preventing future incidents like the one in Brooklyn Center requires “training the cop brain to function better under stress.”
Most by now have seen video of the Daunte Wright shooting. In the video, former Brooklyn Center, Minnesota Police Officer Kim Potter’s body camera shows another officer attempting to arrest Wright for an outstanding warrant. Wright pulls away from the officer. He tries to get back in his vehicle through the open driver’s door. At this Officer Potter draws her firearm and says, “I’ll Tase you!” several times, then, “Taser! Taser! Taser!” (Officers are trained to say this when deploying a Taser so that other officers don’t mistake the Taser’s “pop” for a gunshot.) But Officer Potter has not drawn her Taser; she has her firearm in her hand and lethally shoots Wright. Realizing this, she immediately exclaims, “Oh shit, I shot him!”
To the public, the encounter is mind-boggling. How could an officer mistakenly draw her firearm instead of her Taser? Shouldn't the difference be obvious? And yet, to a trained observer, it’s pretty clear that what Officer Potter experienced is a cognitive error known as a “slip-and-capture.”
Slip-and-captures occur when the brain intends to perform one action but accidentally performs another. This error has been a factor in several high-profile law enforcement shootings where officers said they intended to deploy a Taser but instead used a firearm, including the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California (the movie Fruitvale Station is based on this incident), and the 2002 shooting of Christopher Atak in Rochester, Minnesota. To understand a slip-and-capture, we need to take a little trip into the neuroscience of human performance in high-stress environments. I’m just a road cop, not a brain scientist, so bear with me.
In response to a dangerous or threatening situation, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) becomes activated; this is popularly characterized as the “fight or flight (or freeze)” response. Our heart rate rises, circulation increases, and the body experiences a massive dump of hormones to prepare the body to react to the threat. You’ve probably experienced this to a small degree if you’ve ever almost been struck by another vehicle in traffic, or experienced a sudden “life or death” encounter. The brain focuses intently on the threat, which can cause tunnel vision and auditory exclusion of non-essential sounds.
The upside of SNS activation is that we become stronger, faster, and better able to utilize energy. The downside is that higher brain functions like logical reasoning go out the window. The brain can no longer process information as effectively. Rather than a reasoned response, it perceives a stimulus (the “threat”) and rapidly searches for the quickest and most relevant response available in its psychological inventory and executes it. Again, you’ve experienced this if you’ve ever mistaken an inert object for a mouse or snake and jumped away. You didn’t choose to do that; your body activated your SNS to protect you from potential danger.
This probably worked great for the cave-person who needed to flee from, say, a saber tooth tiger, and it still helps us avoid stepping on dangerous or icky creatures, but our brain evolution hasn’t caught up to the modern age. A police use-of-force situation is extremely complicated, the officer having to evaluate the subject’s behavior, the environment, the law and their available force options in circumstances that are, to borrow from the Supreme Court landmark use-of-force case Graham vs. Connor, “tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” It’s a tall order, and one we saw go very wrong this week in Brooklyn Center.
It is fairly obvious Potter intended to deploy her Taser, a non-lethal option which would have been legally justified given the circumstances. Officer Potter’s brain, under SNS arousal, attempted to execute the psychomotor process, “draw and fire Taser.” However, it “slipped” and instead “captured” a similar but inappropriate process - “draw and fire firearm” - an error that had lethal consequences for Wright (and life-altering ones for Potter).
The brain under stress will sometimes choose a process that has been trained/repeated more frequently, and thus become more familiar, over a less-repeated task. For example, I’ve seen officers with a college-wrestling background go straight to wrestling instead of their trained police empty-hand techniques in scenario-based defensive tactics training. They simply have more repetitions with “clinch and get a single-leg takedown” as a response to a subject assuming a fighting stance, than they do with the “draw Taser” or “establish arm-bar control” responses taught in the police academy.
As deadly force is a highly consequential aspect of our jobs, officers often receive significantly more training in drawing and using their firearm than drawing and using their Taser or empty-hand combatives. A bare-minimum annual qualification course has an officer firing about 50 rounds from his service weapon; Taser’s yearly re-certification requires firing one or two practice cartridges. The neural pathways for firearm use are then by default stronger than they are for Taser use. The result, I believe, is that Officer Potter felt confident she was drawing and firing her Taser, while under stress her brain executed the wrong mental program.
Does the public believe that law enforcement officers receive extensive training in use-of-force? I’m not sure; however, they would probably be surprised at the actual mandated hours: the average law enforcement officer gets around 40 hours of empty-hand training, and about 40-to-80 hours of firearms training in the academy. We then get about 16 hours of annual use-of-force training (in my case, four hours of firearms, four hours of empty-hand tactics, a six-hour combined classroom/scenario Taser class, and one hour each for baton, pepper spray, and classroom or online use-of-force law). By comparison, a student at my Jiu Jitsu gym isn’t allowed to test for his first promotion until he has at least 80 hours, and more typically 100-120 hours, of training time. As former Navy Seal Commander Jocko Willink has pointed out, Navy Seals and other special forces soldiers train 18 months for a six month deployment. The bottom line? There can be a large gap between the standard of skill the public expects officers to meet (and which is often informed, if inaccurately, by TV and movies), and the ability of officers to meet it, given the mandated training actually provided.
So what do we do about it?
Fortunately, we can train the brain to function better under stress. Professional athletes, martial artists, special operations soldiers, law enforcement SWAT teams, astronauts, and doctors all utilize scenario-based training techniques that attempt to replicate the stress of their actual performance domains, so that when they experience it in the real world, they will be “inoculated” to its effects and better able to react and make good choices. Boxers in the ring don’t have an overwhelming SNS reaction to someone trying to punch them in the face precisely because they’ve been hit so many times in sparring. They can stay in their higher brain and apply the appropriate responses to each stimulus: the punches coming their way. (Boxer Mike Tyson famously had something to say about such planning.)
That said, there are three major obstacles (I might say, ironies) in the public debate around police use-of-force. They might seem counter-intuitive, but they need to be better understood by the public and policy makers before we can move forward together and toward best outcomes.
The first obstacle is the “Defund the Police” movement. Citizens should understand that budgets being cut virtually guarantees officers will get less training and be less-prepared to use force effectively and safely. If you need to keep a minimum number of officers on the street, and still answer 911 calls, and are experiencing recruiting and retention issues to boot, you cancel training. While de-escalation, cultural diversity, mental health, and implicit bias training can be helpful, they are usually unfunded mandates, resulting in diversion of training time and resources from “hard skills,” and especially from manpower-intensive scenario-based stress inoculation training. When you cut police funding, you will get shittier-trained cops. There is no getting around it.
The second is that more training in “hard” tactical skills, such as hand-to-hand combatives, firearms, and less-lethal weapons, results in LOWER levels of use-of-force. This is not paradoxical. For example, after instituting a mandatory Jiu-Jitsu based training program with significant agency budget support, the Marietta, Georgia Police Department realized a 23% reduction in Taser deployments, a 48% reduction in officer injuries, and a 53% reduction in injuries to suspects. It is a common catch-phrase among law enforcement trainers that “ineffective force is excessive force.” An officer who is calm, cool, collected, and confident in their skills will almost always employ less force. Conversely, an officer who is not confident, or is failing to control a suspect, is likely to escalate force options quickly, resulting in higher and more dangerous levels of force to bring the situation under control.
The final obstacle I will cite is that some states, including Minnesota, are banning “warrior mindset training.” The Minnesota bill and discussion around it made clear that the legislators pushing it misunderstood what this training consisted of, and what “warrior mindset” means to those of us who practice it. I imagine some people saw the words “warrior mindset” and called up images of slaughter on the battlefield, when in fact the training created by Colonel Dave Grossman primarily focuses on explaining to officers how their bodies will react involuntarily to high-stress encounters, and how to overcome it.
“Warrior” in this context means one who trains and becomes expert in the various weapon systems officers are required to carry; prepares them to be calm under stress, and cultivates discipline and wisdom when it comes to use-of-force. There is a reason the seven virtues of the samurai Bushido warrior code included compassion, respect, and integrity alongside heroic courage. There is also a reason samurai were expected to be well-read and versed in artistic pursuits. Wielding the sword wisely is critical. We need more warriors in law enforcement, not fewer.
To the cops out there: part of warrior mindset and warrior culture is that individual officers don’t get a pass on the obligation to train. Just because your agency isn’t providing the training you need, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be seeking it out on your own time and dime. Don’t blame your agency if you use unlawful force because you were unskilled and unprepared. Every major city, and even most small cities, have a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym; programs like Adopt-A-Cop will even pay for your training expenses. Nothing prepares you better to make decisions under stress than spending a few nights a week on the bottom of your best friend’s oppressive top control while he slowly chokes you toward unconsciousness. Dry-fire and practice draws with your firearm and other weapons cost nothing; have your wife, kids, or significant other call out a particular weapon system and see how fast you can draw it (after rendering all weapons safe, of course). Doing an intensive physical workout before shooting on the range, instead of leisurely punching bullseyes at the 10-yard line, will simulate some stress. And it goes without saying that if you are fat, out-of-shape, and physically unprepared, you are the liability that members on your team may have to put themselves at risk for to rescue.
Law enforcement officers need to step up. Don’t be satisfied with mandatory training, or, as Adam Haidary, law enforcement trainer at Effective Fitness says, “Fuck the standard.” Train above it. The public’s trust is contingent on us being prepared to masterfully and surgically use force. If you don’t want to put in the work, I’m sure there are openings for security guards near you.
To the public: law officers need your support so that we can be wise warriors and masters of our craft. I realize that ask might inspire some howls of laughter, or horror, but stick with me here. If you expect law enforcement to use force with restraint, precision, and expertise – and you should demand no less – understand that defunding police works against that; works against the best outcomes we all want. I know of no officer who wants to see or be involved in another Daunte Wright incident. The public should resist efforts to defund police, and in fact demand more resources for law enforcement training. Preventing outcomes like that in Brooklyn Center depend on it.
Philosopher Cop is an active law enforcement officer working patrol who chooses to write anonymously in order to speak freely on law enforcement issues of public concern. These views are their own in their personal capacity and do not reflect the statements, beliefs, or opinions of any law enforcement agency.
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Until next time, with love and the date-nut bars I plan to bake before noon xx