(NEW YORK) — The veteran police officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, may have accidentally grabbed her gun instead of her stun gun before the shooting, an assertion offered by the police chief.
In body camera footage of the incident, the officer, Kim Potter, can be heard yelling “Taser” repeatedly before she shoots Wright. After firing her handgun, she yells, “Holy s—! I just shot him!”
“It is my belief that the officer had the intention to deploy their Taser, but instead shot Mr. Wright with a single bullet,” former chief Tim Gannon, who has since resigned, said Monday in a press conference.
He said Potter had been taught to warn others when deploying a Taser, and that the distress she expressed following the incident shows that it was an accidental discharge.
While the assertion has sparked anger and disbelief from some, this wouldn’t be the first time an officer has shot a suspect with a handgun instead of firing a stun gun.
And in several recent cases, officers faced little to no consequences for what was deemed a mistake.
In 2019, a New Hope, Pennsylvania police officer shot and wounded an unarmed man in what he says was a mistaken use of his gun. Like Potter, he yelled “Taser” before pulling out his gun and shooting the man in the stomach. The victim was in critical condition following the incident. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the officer violated a New Hope department rule that mandates that stun guns be worn on the opposite hip from a firearm. This officer wore his stun gun on his right side in front of his firearm, according to the police.
Though the officer violated policy, District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said he did not violate the law, claiming it was “was neither justified, nor criminal, but was excused” in a letter to the New Hope police chief. The officer was not charged with a crime.
In May 2018, a Kansas police officer was initially charged with aggravated battery after she shot a Black man following a traffic stop. He was wounded in his back and later taken to a hospital. Then-Lawrence Police Department officer Brindley Blood also yelled “Taser” before firing her gun at the man, who had hit and slammed an officer to the ground using his body. The rookie police officer told investigators she had meant to use her stun gun. Criminal charges were later dismissed when a Douglas County judge ruled that the evidence didn’t prove that Blood reacted recklessly to the situation.
Also, in May 2018, a Southwestern Regional police officer in Pennsylvania, Stuart Lee Harrison, allegedly tried to use a stun gun against a subject’s thigh while he was handcuffed and instead shot him with a firearm. According to the York Daily Record, the arrestee was hospitalized and his condition was unclear. Harrison was charged with simple assault and the criminal case is ongoing, but he is free without bond. The police department disbanded in 2019.
And in 2015, an Oklahoma reserve deputy shot and killed an unarmed Black man. The subject ran from police and when officers struggled to subdue him, then-deputy Robert Bates said he mistook his handgun for his stun gun and accidentally killed the subject. Bates was sentenced to four years in prison for second-degree manslaughter but served 16 months.
There is no national data on these kinds of incidents, but law enforcement experts agree that mistaking guns for stun guns, while relatively rare, does happen.
Other cases have occurred in recent years as well. An Americans for Effective Law Enforcement article from 2012 found nine more instances of these accidents between 2001 and 2009. Americans for Effective Law Enforcement is a not-for-profit research organization that focuses on criminal justice.
In the case of Wright’s death, former chief Gannon said Brooklyn Center officers go through specific training on the placement of their stun guns to avoid such an incident.
“We train with our handguns on our dominant side and our Taser on our weak side,” Gannon said. “So if you’re right-handed, you carry your firearm on your right side, you carry a Taser on the left. This is done purposefully and is trained.”
It’s unclear if Potter was carrying her equipment according to department policy. In the body camera footage, another officer can be seen wearing their stun gun on one side and their gun on the other.
Potter is a 26-year BCPD veteran, former union president, and was serving as a field training officer at the time of the incident. She has since resigned from her position, but Brooklyn Center’s Mayor Mike Elliott said he has not yet accepted the resignation. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput announced that Potter will be charged with second-degree manslaughter. In Minnesota, a second-degree manslaughter conviction can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
“The question becomes: ‘How could she have not differentiated between a firearm and that of a yellow Taser, which should be on her weak side,” law enforcement expert Cedric Alexander said in an interview with ABC News. “It is distinguishably a very different-looking instrument in your hand … That would be hard to mistake.”
It is unclear what make or model stun gun Potter had. Body camera footage of another officer on the scene alongside Potter shows a stun gun in its holster with a brightly colored handle that is noticeably different than the gun Potter held in her hand during the incident.
Potter is being represented by attorney Earl Gray. He is also representing Thomas Lane, one of the officers involved in George Floyd’s death who is charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Alexander, a law enforcement veteran with more than 40 years of experience, says stress, pressure and lack of training can lead to this kind of mistake in a high-intensity situation in the field. He said training and practice have to be continuous throughout an officer’s career — but, not speaking specifically about Potter, he also believes departments have to do the work to “be far better assured about who it is that we’re hiring and bringing into our police department across this country. What’s their comfortability with people who have different than themselves, who may have a different orientation than themselves, whether it’s around race or gender, or sexual preference or religious preference?”
Even when stun guns — which are designed to be less-lethal weapons for law enforcement — are deployed, they can be deadly.
Alexander says Potter needs to be held accountable.
“Someone here did lose their life, and there are certain mistakes out here that we cannot make,” Alexander said. “But we need to allow the investigation to take place … and then we’ll have a better idea of what was going through her mind at that time.”
In an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts on Good Morning America, Wright’s father said he refused to believe that the killing was an accident.
“I lost my son, he’s never coming back,” Aubrey Wright, said. “I can’t accept that — a mistake, that doesn’t even sound right …. This officer has been on the force for 26 years. I can’t accept that.”
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