U.S.

What Led to the Brooklyn Center Shooting?

Protesters rally outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department as it is guarded by members of the police and National Guard, a day after Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a police officer, in Brooklyn Center, Minn., April 12, 2021. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
There is a common thread that ties together many police-involved killings, even with the horrific mistake at the center of this one.

An accident. A horrific mistake that ended one life and forever changed who knows how many others. How indescribably heartbreaking it is.

We are told that (now former — she resigned on Tuesday) Brooklyn Center, Minn., police officer Kimberly Potter intended to draw and deploy her Taser as she and her partner attempted to handcuff Daunte Wright, who, after being stopped for driving with expired registration, was found to be wanted on an arrest warrant for a misdemeanor gun charge. Potter will be charged with second-degree manslaughter.

Such is the state of America’s social fabric today that Wright’s death cannot in some quarters be viewed as the accident it appears to have been, but rather as an excuse to further strain the country’s racial divide, already near the breaking point since the death of George Floyd last May in Minneapolis.

On CNN’s New Day Tuesday morning, for example, retired LAPD sergeant Cheryl Dorsey scoffed at Brooklyn Center police chief Tim Gannon’s claim that the shooting had been a mistake. Gannon, who also resigned on Tuesday, was being “intellectually dishonest and disingenuous,” she said. “This wasn’t a mistake, it was murder.” She went on to say it would be “impossible, almost” for a police officer to make such a mistake.

Almost, indeed. I am aware of 16 prior shootings in the United States over the last 20 years in which a police officer intended to use a Taser but instead fired a pistol and injured someone. (There may have been other incidents in which no one was injured, but I have no data on such cases.) Three of these shootings resulted in deaths, and in two of those cases the officers were charged, convicted, and imprisoned.

The most widely publicized of these was the January 1, 2009, death of Oscar Grant at an Oakland, Calif., commuter-train station. Johannes Mehserle, at the time an officer with the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, had responded with other officers to a reported fight on a train stopped at the Fruitvale Station. He detained Grant but was unable to handcuff him as Grant lay prone on the station platform. It was apparent from Mehserle’s reaction, captured on bystander video, that he had confused his Taser with his Glock pistol, and indeed the jury accepted Mehserle’s claim of an accident, convicting him of involuntary manslaughter rather than murder.

So, yes, such mistakes are almost impossible, as are other things that sometimes nonetheless happen, such as airplane crashes and collapsed bridges. But how did this particular mistake happen?

What is striking to me as I watch the video of the Wright shooting is how quickly the encounter went from its benign, routine beginning (to the extent anything is truly “routine” in police work) to its catastrophic conclusion. The initial traffic stop was not included in the video released, but we may infer that Potter and her partner had stopped Wright, obtained his identification, and discovered the arrest warrant. The video begins at this point, with Potter’s partner approaching Wright and telling him to exit the car. Potter, whose body camera captured the events, remains near the left-rear corner of Wright’s car. A third officer, who appears to be a sergeant, posts on the car’s passenger side.

Wright gets out of the car and puts his hands behind his back as instructed, but before the officer can handcuff him, he tenses up and shows the first sign of resistance. Potter approaches, and it appears she tries but fails to control Wright’s arms. Eighteen seconds after exiting the car, Wright slips from both officers’ grasp and jumps into the driver’s seat. Potter is heard saying she will tase Wright, but already we can see it is her Glock pistol in her right hand, not a Taser. “Taser, Taser, Taser,” she shouts, which under ordinary circumstances is a signal to other officers to stay clear and to not mistake the sound of the Taser’s discharge with that of a firearm.

But now we of course know it was a firearm that was discharged. “Oh, s***, I shot him,” Potter says, and as the video ends, we see the disbelieving faces of the two other officers. Wright was struck by Potter’s bullet, drove for a short distance before colliding with another car, and died at the scene.

Because the video is from Potter’s perspective, we cannot see how she carried her Taser. But we may assume it was in a manner similar to her partner, whose Taser can be seen holstered in a cross-draw configuration on the left side of his duty belt — the theory being that deploying a Taser should require a movement sufficiently distinct from that of drawing a firearm. And her partner’s Taser has a bright yellow grip, as presumably does her own, a feature intended to distinguish it from a black handgun and to minimize the risk of incidents such as this one.

When I first learned of the incident, I assumed the involved officer to be one of little experience, but this was not the case. Potter was a 26-year veteran officer and surely had been involved in some number of altercations with resisting suspects over the course of her career, none of which, as far as we know, ended with anything close to such disastrous results. One important lesson here is that, regardless of an officer’s experience and training, the risk of a deadly mistake can only approach but never reach zero.

Some will dismiss what follows as blaming the victim. But if we are to take an honest look at this or any other arrest gone bad, surely we are obliged to consider the conduct of all parties involved, not just the police. It is widely acknowledged among police officers, for example, that Derek Chauvin was wrong in his handling of George Floyd, though there is a range of opinions on Chauvin’s degree of criminal culpability, especially given Floyd’s drug use and medical condition.

What most police officers can agree on is that Floyd would most likely be alive today had he not resisted arrest. The same can be said of Daunte Wright, and for that matter of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and any number of others who have died in controversial police encounters.

For all the talk of enhanced training and emphasis on de-escalation by the police, it is an inescapable fact that some small number of police encounters with the public will result in a use of force, and some small fraction of those will go very, very wrong. When officers seek to arrest a man who would go to great lengths not to be arrested, there is abundant room for error. But in the current social and political climate, only the police are held accountable for their errors.

Even as the Wright shooting will inspire further efforts at police “reform,” it will also likely hasten the dismantling and demoralizing of police departments across the country, a process that began long before the George Floyd incident but has accelerated since. This process predictably has been accompanied by an alarming rise in crime as law enforcers and lawbreakers alike calculate their respective incentives and disincentives and conduct themselves accordingly. A fresh assessment of those incentives and disincentives is taking place as you read this. The deaths of Daunte Wright and George Floyd are deeply regrettable. But should it be unspeakable, even unthinkable, that those of the 20,000 people murdered in the United States last year were equally so?

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