The killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright by a police officer on Sunday afternoon set off three nights of protests in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, and raised questions over the circumstances that led to the shooting of yet another unarmed Black man in this metropolitan area.
In body camera footage released early Monday morning, Officer Kim Potter is heard threatening to tase Wright as several other officers try to arrest him. She then fires a fatal shot at Wright before he drives away. Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said in a news conference Monday, one day before he resigned, that he believed Potter fired her handgun accidentally, thinking it was a taser. But Wright’s family and the attorneys representing them said they do not accept this explanation and want the officer to face criminal charges for her actions.
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Potter, a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center Police Department and former president of her union, announced she would resign Tuesday afternoon. Washington County Attorney Peter Orput announced on Wednesday that Potter had been charged with second-degree manslaughter in Wright’s death. Potter was arrested by agents from Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehensions on Wednesday morning, and is in jail awaiting her first court appearance.
“Certain occupations carry an immense responsibility and none more so than a sworn police officer,” Imran Ali, Washington County assistant criminal division chief and director of the Major Crime Unit, said in a statement. “With that responsibility comes a great deal of discretion and accountability. We will vigorously prosecute this case and intend to prove that Officer Potter abrogated her responsibility to protect the public when she used her firearm rather than her taser.”
Wright’s death occurred just as the third week of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s trial was set to begin. Chauvin is charged with killing 46-year-old George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes last May, and is the first of four officers to face trial in a case that sparked a national reckoning around police brutality and racial injustice in the U.S.
Like Floyd’s death, the Brooklyn Center shooting has prompted further discussions about police training and accountability, as well as how routine traffic stops systematically target people of color, and can escalate and end in violence. Here’s what we know so far about the shooting and investigation into Wright’s death.
Gannon said on Monday that officers stopped Wright because he had an expired registration on his vehicle, and then discovered that there was an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for his arrest. Court records show Wright failed to appear in court on charges that he fled from officers and possessed a gun without a permit during an encounter with Minneapolis police in June, according to the Associated Press.
Gannon also said that Wright had an item hanging from his rearview mirror.
Wright’s mother, Katie, said that her son called her shortly after he was stopped, and told her he had been pulled over because he had air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror. She asked him to take them down and told him she could give their insurance information to the officers if he put them on the phone.
Before she could talk to the police over the phone, she heard them ask Daunte to get out of the vehicle. She also heard her son ask if he was in trouble.
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“I could hear the police officers scruffling with him,” Wright’s mother said through tears at a news conference in Minneapolis Tuesday.
Body camera footage of the shooting shows two officers approaching Wright’s car and speaking to him through the window. After an officer tries to handcuff him, Wright resists and tries to get back in the car, at which point Potter is heard shouting “I’ll Tase you! I’ll Tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!” After firing a single shot from her handgun, the car drives away, and Potter is heard saying, “Holy s**t! I shot him.”
Wright was driving in the car with a woman who sustained injuries in the altercation but was not killed, according to authorities.
Katie Wright said she tried to call her son back multiple times after police told him to get out of the car. The woman in the car eventually answered on FaceTime, showing that Daunte was unresponsive in the driver’s seat.
As of Tuesday, Wright said she hadn’t received any explanation from the authorities about her son’s death.
In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, Potter said she would resign immediately because she believed it would be “in the best interest of the community, the department, and my fellow officers.” She did not address the shooting directly. Brooklyn Center mayor Mike Elliott said they had been moving to fire Potter, and that he hoped her resignation would “bring some calm to the community.” He added that he would keep working toward “full accountability under the law.”
Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney who is representing Wright’s family, said he hoped she would receive “the highest” charge possible.
In an interview with Good Morning America Tuesday morning, Wright’s father Aubrey disputed Gannon’s claim that Potter’s shooting of Daunte was an “accidental discharge.”
“I can’t accept that — a mistake, that doesn’t even sound right,” he said. “This officer has been on the force for 26 years. I can’t accept that.”
Potter had been responsible for training new officers on the force, leading critics to question how she could have made such a mistake.
“How many times in training over the course of 25 years has this officer pulled, aimed and shot her firearm in practice?” said Jeff Storms, a co-counsel representing the Wright family. “Don’t tell us it’s an accident, because it undermines the tragic loss of life this family has experienced.”
“After 26 years, you’d think you would know what side your gun is on, and what side your taser is on,” Crump said.
On Tuesday, Toshira Garraway, who launched the group Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence after her own fiance was targeted by Minnesota police, spoke about the frequency of police violence at a news conference with Crump as well as Floyd’s and Wright’s families.
“We want the world to know that these are not isolated issues,” she said.
As Garraway and other activists at the presser noted, Wright’s killing highlights systemic issues that continue to exist not only in police departments throughout Minnesota, but the entire U.S., and endanger people of color in particular.
“Traffic stops are the most common way people in the U.S. come into contact with the police, and those encounters often turn deadly,” Paige Fernandez, a policing policy adviser with the ACLU, told the PBS NewsHour. Nationwide, these stops disproportionately target people of color, according to data from Stanford’s Open Policing Project. Fernandez cited several cases in which traffic stops by law enforcement turned fatal, including that of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in a suburb of Saint Paul five years ago, and Maurice Gordon, who was shot six times by a New Jersey state trooper after being pulled over for allegedly speeding last June.
Of the 1,127 cases where police killed people last year, 121 deaths occurred after a traffic stop, according to an analysis by Campaign Zero, an advocacy organization seeking to end police violence in America.
Data from the Brooklyn Center Police shows that the department was disproportionately targeting people of color well before Wright’s death. An analysis presented to the city council last year found that among the individuals stopped by the BCPD from June 2019 to August 2020, 62 percent were Black, while 25 percent were white. Only 27.1 percent of Brooklyn Center residents are Black and 38.3 percent are white.
This was not the first fatal shooting Potter was involved in as an officer with the BCPD. Officers killed 21-year-old Kobe Dimock-Heisler, a Black autistic man, after he lunged toward police during a domestic disturbance call in 2019. Potter was one of the first officers to arrive on the scene after Dimock-Heisler was shot on Aug. 31, 2019, and she directed fellow officers to deactivate their body cameras, according to a report by the Hennepin County Attorney’s office.
Fernandez said that throughout the U.S., “there are a lot of existing laws that shouldn’t be on the books in the first place that allow officers to target people of color.” Wright was pulled over on the pretext of an issue with his vehicle registration, but also ran into problems due to having an air freshener hanging in his rearview mirror. Having objects in this location violates a Minnesota statute that the state ACLU said is often used as an “excuse for making a pretextual stop,” leading law enforcement to disproportionately target Black people.
Crump noted that the Department of Motor Vehicle services have slowed down during the coronavirus pandemic, which likely would have made it harder for Wright to renew his vehicle registration, something he said the police should have been aware and understanding of. The Saint Paul Pioneer Press reported last June that there was a backlog of vehicle registration renewals throughout the state as a result of the pandemic.
“I guess when you’re driving while Black, people sometimes forget memos and initiatives about the realities of life,” Crump said.
In addition to enforcing a wide range of laws that target people of color, U.S. police departments continue to employ excessive use of force during routine stops like the one Wright encountered, Fernandez said. State statutes on use of force vary widely, but courts have shown a willingness to defer to an officer’s judgment in the moment regarding the threat posed by an individual, according to a Congressional Research Service report on the issue released last July.
Regardless of whether Potter shot Wright accidentally, it appears she may not have been following protocol as laid out by her department. A BCPD police manual states that tasers should not be used against people “whose position or activity may result in collateral injury” — including people who are “operating vehicles,” according to The New York Times. It also says that “reasonable efforts should be made to target lower center mass and avoid the head, neck, chest and groin.” Wright died from a gunshot to the chest.
Protests against police brutality are expected to continue in Minneapolis as well as other areas of the country as people await further information on the charges against Potter, as well as a verdict in Derek Chauvin’s case. Brooklyn Center and several other towns in the Minneapolis area imposed a curfew in response to the unrest, and the city’s mayor pleaded with protesters to stay safe. “You can peacefully protest,” Elliott said on NBC’s Today Show on Tuesday. “But when it gets dark, please go home and just know that we are working to get justice. And ultimately, I do believe very strongly that we will get justice.”
The PBS NewsHour will update this story as it develops.
Courtney Vinopal is a general assignment reporter at the PBS NewsHour.
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