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Who determines the value of a life?

Seattle Police Officer’s comments come as a cruel reminder of how the US police system decides what we are worth.

By Vrithi Takkalapalli

Credit: Associated Press


On January 23, 2023, 23 year old graduate student Jaahnavi Kandula lost her life when Seattle police officer Kevin Dave struck her with his police SUV. An investigation into the incident found that Officer Dave was driving at a high speed of 74 miles per hour in a 25 zone when he hit her, and only used his police sirens briefly at intersections. Kandula was thrown approximately 138 feet upon impact and was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.

As heartbreaking as Kandula’s death is, it is compounded by the actions of the Seattle Police Department. Officer Daniel Auderer, who serves as the vice-president of the Seattle police officers' guild, was assigned to assess whether Officer Dave had been impaired during the incident as part of his regular duties. After conducting a routine assessment of Dave at a local precinct, Auderer left in his police cruiser and placed a phone call to Mike Sloan, the union president. It's worth noting that two minutes of this call were unknowingly recorded by Auderer's body camera before he turned it off. Just recently, six months after Kandula’s death, this recording has come to public attention.

In those two minutes, significant revelations emerge. Auderer's words are chilling as he states, “I think she went up on the hood, hit the windshield, then, when he hit the brakes, flew off the car. But she is dead.” He follows this with laughter, not just a casual chuckle but a deep, hearty laugh. It's incomprehensible how anyone could find even a trace of humor in such a devastating loss. He goes on to say, “No, it's a regular person," and then adds, “Just write a check.” Once more, Auderer erupts into laughter. “$11,000” he continues. “She was 26, anyway. Her worth was limited.”

Auderer claimed that he believed this conversation was private and not being recorded, but this hardly mitigates the situation. In a second unconvincing attempt to justify his actions, he argued that he was not being “insensitive” but rather “imitating what a lawyer tasked with negotiating the case would be saying”.

Auderer's remarks are deeply unsettling, not because they are appalling or especially cruel – it would require an immense level of denial to see them otherwise – but because they validate a suspicion that confronts us daily in this country, despite being consistently told to overlook it.

In reality, we face ridicule, dismissal, and condemnation when we voice the concern that police departments nationwide often fall short in preserving and protecting our lives, a duty they are sworn to uphold.

Instead, it appears they are more deeply committed to safeguarding their own interests and livelihoods.

Credit: Associated Press

What determines the worth of a “regular person?”. What determines “limited value?” Here we encounter the heart of the issue, and the true inhumanity of the situation. Kandula’s story is one we have heard before.

Too often, black and brown women are failed by our law enforcement system, and officers are not held accountable for their crimes.

It begins to paint a troubling picture where modern U.S. policing seems less concerned about ensuring public safety and more about empowering law enforcement and the entire criminal justice system to arbitrarily assign a dollar value to each of us.

Jaahnavi Kandula was an international student from India. She was pursuing a Master’s degree in information systems at Northeastern University. She left her home, and moved to a completely new country so that she could support her single mother in India. She was set to graduate in December. Instead, it fell upon her uncle, Ashok Mandula, in Texas to send Jaahnavi’s body to her mother. When asked about his niece’s death, he said “I wonder if these men’s daughters or granddaughters have value. A life is a life.” Jaahnavi was an ambitious, remarkable young woman. She was loved deeply by her family and her community. She was a beloved daughter, a niece, a friend, but above all else, she was a person.

We should not have to justify the value of a human life.

Our lives will always be worth more than a few thousand dollars. It is that simple.

The revelation of Auderer's comments and the body-cam footage coincides with a recent decision by a federal judge that marked the end of almost all federal court oversight of the Seattle police department, which had been in place since a 2012 consent decree was established to address concerns related to the use of force, community trust, and various other issues. I wonder, how many more lives must be lost before legislators see the need for tangible change and reform to our law enforcement system?


Vrithi Takkalapalli is a second-year biochemistry and English major, and an online writer for Rowdy Magazine. She loves Thai tea, the NYT crossword, and all things pop culture.

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