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Minnesota Police Officer Charged In Death Of Daunte Wright

NOEL KING, HOST:

What does a former federal prosecutor make of all this - George Floyd's killing, Daunte Wright's killing and now Adam Toledo's killing? We often check in with Paul Butler, who is a professor at Georgetown Law, about race, policing and the judicial system. He and I talked yesterday.

Are police officers punished if somebody like Daunte Wright struggles, gets away, gets in the car, drives off? They don't catch him. He's now out there driving around. Does a theoretical Officer Kim Potter go back to the office and get in a ton of trouble?

PAUL BUTLER: Not at all, especially in a case like this where they know who the suspect is. They have his license plate. They know where he lives. There are millions and millions of outstanding warrants in the United States, and every day, police show up at people's homes and arrest them for those outstanding warrants. That procedure could have been followed with Mr. Wright, especially because even the warrant that was outstanding wasn't for a crime of the century. It was for two misdemeanors.

KING: I want to ask you a personal question, if you don't mind. We've had you on the show with us before talking about the fear that Black men in particular experience living in the United States of America. We know that Daunte Wright's mother has said he was afraid. That was why he struggled. That was why he moved to get away. He was afraid of ending up in the criminal justice system. He was afraid of the cops. Are you - I mean, do you walk around with this constant sense of fear?

BUTLER: Yes.

KING: You do. OK.

BUTLER: I think that any Black person who is aware of the news, who knows history, has to be anxious around the police. I'm older. I'm a professional. I'm law-abiding. Whenever I see a cop car behind me, my heart starts beating faster. I don't go to places late at night where I'd have to drive and be on a lonely road where I might be pulled over. I don't want to take the risk. And it's almost like you can't win because if you do pull over in a dark area where there are not a lot of people, you don't know what's going to happen. And if you don't immediately stop, then you're committing, in addition to whatever traffic infraction, you're committing contempt of cop. And bad officers will make you pay for that.

And finally, the concern is that it's so arbitrary, and so that police officers who are racist or biased, they have so much power. And I'll tell you a quick story about how much power. In my class at Georgetown, I have a real-life police officer come and talk to my students about what it's like to be a cop in D.C. And to demonstrate how much power he has, he plays a game with the students where he invites them to come on a ride-along, sit in the back seat of his car for a night, and the game is called Pick That Car. And he tells the student, pick any car you want on the street, and I'll stop it.

He's a good cop. He waits until he finds a legal reason. But he says that he can follow any car for four or five minutes, and he'll find a reason. There are so many traffic infractions that any time you drive, you commit one. And that gives police an extraordinary amount of power, and we know that they selectively use this power against Black and brown people.

KING: And if you don't mind my asking, you have just talked about anxiety, fear, the understanding that this is arbitrary and the understanding that police have an enormous amount of power and almost everybody out there driving is doing something wrong at any time. What is your response to this, to all of this, this cascade, this tsunami of problems?

BUTLER: I'm a lawyer, so in some sense, I believe in reform. And I'm an educator, so I believe in the power of learning and knowledge. So there are things that can be done. One simple fix is that when people commit traffic infractions, the best responders aren't people with guns because now we see that, too often, when people with guns are required to respond to minor, petty offenses, the consequences can be tragic.

KING: Paul Butler is a professor of law at Georgetown, a former federal prosecutor and author of the book "Chokehold: Policing Black Men." Professor Butler, thank you for taking the time today. We really appreciate it.

BUTLER: It's always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR MCFERRIN'S "POSTPARTUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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