At the launch of the trial of Officer Kim Potter, the now former Brooklyn Center, MN officer who was charged with manslaughter after fatally shooting Daunte Wright I, like probably every other law enforcement professional in the country, took inventory of the key issues in this trial. The two most salient were whether Daunte Wright posed a deadly threat to the involved officers (or any threat at all, as one prosecution expert questioned during the trial) and whether Kim Potter should be punished for fatally shooting him, an action she claimed was a mistake after she mistook her firearm for a Taser.
The issue of weapon confusion is extremely complex. I couldn’t begin to thoroughly cover that here, so I won’t try. The issues of risk and officer safety, however, are definitely in my sights here.
A quick review of the incident, then on to some critical points all of us need to remember in the wake of Potter’s conviction.
On April 11, 2021, rookie Officer Anthony Luckey and FTO Kim Potter conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle being operated with an expired registration and an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, thereby partially obstructing the driver’s view of the front windshield. Upon interviewing the driver, Daunte Wright, the officers returned to their patrol vehicle, ran Wright’s name and discovered he was wanted on a warrant for a misdemeanor gun charge.
Officer Luckey returned to the stopped vehicle and asked Wright to exit. When he did, the officer informed him that he had a warrant and was under arrest. At that point Officer Luckey attempted to handcuff Wright behind his back just a couple of feet away from the open driver’s side door. Before the handcuffs could be applied, Wright stopped complying and started resisting, breaking free from Officer Luckey and Officer Potter whose hands can be seen in body cam footage attempting to control Wright.
At this point Wright quickly got back into the driver’s side of his car with both officers just inches away. Officer Potter pointed her duty weapon at the driver while Officer Luckey, off to her right, tried to grab Wright. On the other side of the car, Sgt. Mychal Johnson was leaning in through the open passenger side door in an attempt to control the noncompliant, wanted suspect.
At that moment, in light of the fact that Wright resisted the officers’ efforts to lawfully arrest him on the warrant and forcibly got back into his vehicle, the officers had reasonable cause to believe he was about to carry out one of two very different, but equally deadly courses of action. As demonstrated in other incidents where officers were killed in the line of duty, Wright could have fought his way back into his car with the intent to access a concealed weapon or he may have planned on using the vehicle as a deadly weapon by running over one or more of the officers.
Do those sound farfetched?
Not at all.
The officers were right to be concerned about these possibilities—and if you find yourself in the same situation, you should be, too. Numerous officers have been murdered in the line of duty by exactly those methods in just the past couple years.
From 2019 through April 11, 2021, fifteen law enforcement officers were murdered by perpetrators using their vehicle as a deadly weapon.
In an example mirroring that of the Daunte Wright stop, on December 10, 2019, Nassau Bay police officers in Texas were trying to arrest Tavores Henderson for a warrant discovered during a traffic stop. Henderson resisted arrest, broke free from the officers and got back into his car which he then used to run over and kill Sgt. Kaila Sullivan.
The next month, on January 23, 2020, Newport News Police Officer Katherine Thyne and her partner stopped to question the occupants of a vehicle suspected of possible drug activity. When the driver, Vernon Green, refused to comply with Officer Thyne’s order to exit his vehicle, she opened his car door and reiterated her commands. Green responded by starting the ignition and driving away, dragging PO Thyne for a block before pinning her against a tree, killing her.
Later, on October 20, 2020, it happened again when Ray Kelly fought off the police during a traffic stop as they attempted to arrest him for a warrant. Just as Henderson before him and Wright would do after resisting arrest, Kelly got back into his vehicle and drove off with Greenville County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Conley Jumper trapped on top of the vehicle. Kelly drove his vehicle into a tractor trailer, pinning Sgt. Jumper between the two vehicles, killing him.
In cases where resistive subjects fought with officers with the goal of accessing unseen weapons, the number of officers murdered is even more staggering. 34 such occurrences happened between 2019 and April 11, 2021.
One such incident happened on June 30, 2020 during a traffic stop in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When the driver, career criminal David Ware, refused to exit the vehicle so it could be towed, PO Aurash Zarkeshan and Sgt. Craig Johnson used pepper spray, a taser and physical force to try and remove him from the driver’s seat. As seen in the footage from their body camera, as the officers struggled to pull Ware out, he grabbed a gun from under the steering wheel and shot them both point blank, killing Sgt. Johnson.
Six months later, on January 18, 2021, career criminal Robert Calderon used a firearm he retrieved from a backpack in his vehicle to fatally shoot Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Sheriff Adam Gibson.
Then just weeks before the Wright shooting, on March 12, 2021, Nashville Police Officer Josh Baker was shot and nearly killed during a traffic stop involving Nika Nicole Holbert. As Officer Baker went to arrest her for drugs found in her bag, Holbert fought him off and got back into her car. Despite being tased by Officer Baker as she was in the driver’s seat, Holbert accessed a gun with her right hand and shot him. Fortunately, Officer Baker was not fatally wounded and managed to shoot back at Holbert, justifiably killing her.
These are clear examples of the extreme dangers posed by someone like Wright as he fought his way back into his vehicle while three officers surrounded it and tried to get him out. In my opinion, it can be argued that Officer Kim Potter was justified to use deadly force. However, in an effort to preserve life, she decided to use less-lethal measures and employ her taser.
As the bodycam video shows, though, she was actually pointing her duty weapon at Wright as she yelled, “I’ll tase you! I’ll tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!” before pulling the trigger one time, fatally shooting Wright in his chest. Immediately, Officer Potter, obviously surprised and shocked by the sound of her gun discharging, screamed in terror, “Sh*t! I just shot him! “I grabbed the wrong f**king gun!”
By any reasonable evaluation of what is evident on the body camera footage, Potter mistakenly and unintentionally grabbed her sidearm rather than the Taser.
Back behind the wheel of his vehicle, Wright could run over any one of the three officers and with his arms freely moving inside the car, he would be able to access a hidden weapon if there was one. Any officer near Wright’s vehicle had reasonable cause to believe he presented a deadly threat! And that is exactly the criteria under which a jury was challenged to judge the actions of PO Kim Potter—which means that even though she accidentally shot Daunte Wright, based on the totality of the circumstances at that moment, she should have intentionally been pointing her duty weapon and even pulling its trigger.
In the court of public opinion, America’s progressive political leaders wasted no time expressing their personal feelings about the incident. Without a shred of evidence indicating race had anything to do with the shooting, politicians from the left used their platforms to allege it did. Within 24 hours, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib tweeted, “It wasn’t an accident. Policing in our country is inherently & intentionally racist. Daunte Wright was met with aggression & violence.” At Wright’s funeral, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz remarked, “While nothing will bring Daunte Wright back to loved ones, we must continue to enact real meaningful change at the local, state, and national levels to fight systemic racism.” Also attending the funeral, Senator Amy Klobuchar stated, “True justice is not done as long as Black Americans are killed by law enforcement at more than twice the rate of White Americans.”
At the time of the trial, I thought to myself that if America’s criminal justice system works as it should inside the court room, where it matters most, the jurors will not be swayed by such inflammatory and ignorant remarks from elected leaders. Instead, I thought, the most important remarks the jurors will heed are that of Sgt. Mychal Johnson who said, “(Wright) was trying to take off with me in the car.” If not for Officer Potter shooting Wright, it could very easily have been Sgt. Johnson who was murdered that day and added to the list of fallen officers in 2021. The difference, however, is that if Sgt. Mychal Johnson was murdered by Daunte Wright, nobody would be saying it was because of racism. And frankly, nobody would be saying anything about it, period.
We all know how this trial ended. Tragic all the way around.
The takeaway here in light of former Officer Kim Potter’s conviction? Remember the incidents I listed above! Cops have died after being assaulted with vehicles driven by suspects like Daunte Wright who didn’t hesitate to drag them, run them over or crush them. Cops have also died at the hands of suspects who grab hidden guns in their cars and think nothing of pulling the trigger. Regardless of the finding of this jury, REMEMBER THAT and act accordingly if you find yourself in a similar scenario. Your life and the lives of fellow officers might depend on it.
But one more obvious point, you will have to live with your decision, or die because of it. If wrong, civil and criminal liability is a very real possibility. If fear of legal consequences causes hesitation, you and other officers might be killed.
And guess what? The decision you will have to make, assessing all of the variables, possibilities and ultimate outcomes, will have to be made in the blink of an eye. The blink of an eye.
Should Kim Potter have been convicted? You tell me.
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