Understanding How 'Critical Events' Lead to People Getting Killed by Police

Most people would consider the death of George Floyd or Daunte Wright to be a critical incident.  They would make that rash assumption because they are "critical" to our political environment.  Many pundits and businesses are piling on because the same faulty assumption is applied to voter integrity laws passed in Georgia and under consideration in other states.

No one should be rash enough to discount the importance of these events.  But the term "critical incident" refers to a completely different concept — one that can inform how we address and prevent such public events.  The process of "critical incident analysis" is a method of examining a series of events to identify where a single critical intervention or altered critical choice would have brought the whole "chain of events" to a different conclusion.  Daunte Wright's death cries out for such an analysis.

First, let us consider what the Chief of Police in Brooklyn Center said.

As I watched the video and listened to the officer's commands, it is my belief the officer had the intention to deploy their Taser but instead shot Mr. Wright with a single bullet. This appears to me from what I viewed and the officer's reaction in distress immediately after that this was an accidental discharge that resulted in a tragic death of Mr. Wright.

The mayor followed with this:

We cannot afford to make mistakes that lead to the loss of life.  I do fully support releasing [sic] the officer of her duties.

Notice that both of these statements are factual, and the opinions expressed appear correct.  But neither reaches in the direction of critical incident analysis.  Neither is really useful in preventing another such event.  Only critical incident analysis can help us understand how to avoid reaching false conclusions.

Daunte Wright was stopped for a traffic violation.  During the stop, he exited the car, apparently following police commands.  They attempted to arrest him for violating his bail conditions on a charge of attempted first-degree robbery with deadly force.  His bail violation involved firearm possession, so the police were properly on high alert.  When Wright resisted arrest and tried to flee, the officer appears to have intended to tase him but shot him instead.  He died in short order.

Notice the key events that led up to this.  Assuming that his original arrest in the attempted robbery was correct, we find these events involving Daunte Wright:

  • Participation in a violent crime
  • Violation of his bail conditions
  • Failure to keep his car properly registered
  • Resisting arrest
  • Attempting to flee

For the officer, we find:

  • Possibly inadequate training involving Taser and firearm discipline
  • Failure to identify which weapon the officer was holding

We should not find fault in the choice to attempt to stop Wright's flight.  After all, he violated the conditions of his bail and was known to be armed and dangerous.  Public safety requires that such persons be removed from the street.  But we do find that every step listed above was a "critical incident."

The proximate cause of Wright's death was the shot fired by the officer.  But that was a direct result of his attempt to flee as part of resisting arrest.  Had he not resisted arrest, we would never know about this young criminal.  Hennepin County would be dealing with him in a peaceful manner.  Ditto for each of the other four listed steps.

Daunte Wright had full control over every one of those five steps.  Had he not attempted to flee, he would not have been shot.  Had he not resisted arrest, he would not have attempted to flee.  And so on.  Each one of those steps was a willful choice by Daunte Wright that directly led to the police response that took his life.  At every step, he could have taken a different path and would still be alive today.

It was only after Daunte Wright made three critical choices that the officer entered the equation.  And that officer delayed the final trigger pull until after Wright made the last two critical choices.

Multiple other "black man killed by white cop" incidents follow the same pattern.  In Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown assaulted a clerk.  When stopped by a police officer, he assaulted the officer and was killed by gunshots as the officer defended his own life.  Michael Brown would not have been shot but for at least two critical events fully within his control.  He started the critical incident chain that killed him.

In Minneapolis, George Floyd passed a counterfeit bill.  When arrested, he was under the influence of lethal amounts of illicit drugs, one of which was Fentanyl.  Had he not resisted arrest, when the Fentanyl stopped his breathing, there is a real possibility that it would have been noticed and an injection of Narcan would have brought him back.

There are many more examples available.  These three illustrate that while the proximate cause of death was administered by a police officer (assuming that Officer Chauvin is found guilty), the ultimate cause of death was fully controlled by the decedent.  It was actions leading up to the fatal encounter that set the critical chain of events in motion.

While the police chief and mayor of Brooklyn Center were correct in what they said, they were very wrong in not saying enough.  Both of them should have emphasized — not in passing, but in sharp focus — that Daunte Wright ended up on the receiving end of lethal force because he resisted arrest and attempted to flee.  This doesn't excuse any incorrect action by the officer, but it focuses the ultimate blame where it belongs — on the criminal who created the situation.

Until our public safety officials abandon political correctness and point out this irrefutable truth, we will see more and more public unrest, with more deaths and destroyed cities.  It can't stop with the shootings.  It has to be applied to all the rioting.  Anyone who destroys a business or assaults a police officer is personally responsible for that choice.  No excuses.

Years ago, I took care of a man who had been police chief in a medium-sized Midwestern city during the mid-'60s rioting.  He had gotten word that instigators were coming to stir up trouble in his city.  He let it be known that rioters and looters would be shot on sight.  The rioters passed his city by.  They had the presence of mind to make the critical choice to stay alive.

I don't suggest that this was the best approach — only that it worked.  Rioters and criminals are generally aware that they don't want to die, and if they know that certain actions are likely to make them assume room temperature, they'll often choose wisely.  Public officials who decline to point out that the bad guy's choice led to the bad guy pushing up daisies are acting in a way that does not put public safety first.  They are creating an atmosphere that forces the police to avoid needed force in the interests of preserving themselves.  We suffer for it.

Ted Noel, M.D. posts on multiple social media sites as DoctorTed and @Vidzette.

Image via Pxhere.

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