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This photo provided by Ben Crump Law, PLLC, shows Daunte Wright and his son, Daunte Jr., at his first birthday party. (Ben Crump Law, PLLC. via AP)
This photo provided by Ben Crump Law, PLLC, shows Daunte Wright and his son, Daunte Jr., at his first birthday party. (Ben Crump Law, PLLC. via AP)

Potter charged in killing: ‘We will vigorously prosecute’

Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter in her booking photo. (Hennepin County Sheriff via AP)

Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter in her booking photo. (Hennepin County Sheriff via AP)

Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter in the death of Daunte Wright, prosecutors said.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput on Wednesday charged the officer with second-degree manslaughter for culpable negligence creating an unreasonable risk. Orput took over the prosecution earlier this week at the request of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

(Related story: Activists, Daunte Wright’s family want tougher charge.)

Wright, a 20-year-old motorist, was killed while apparently trying to flee officers during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center.

Potter apparently believed she was holding a stun gun, or Taser, at the time. In fact, she was holding a firearm. Bodycam video shows her shooting Wright with a single bullet to the side of his chest.

In the video, she appears to register stunned surprise in the immediate aftermath. “Holy shit!” she shouted. “I shot him.” Another officer replied, “Oh, wow.”

Though it doesn’t accuse her of intentionally firing her weapon at Wright, a press release from the Washington County Attorney’s Office also does not excuse the incident as a simple mix up. Instead, it criticizes Potter for failing to uphold her responsibility as a sworn officer.

“Certain occupations carry an immense responsibility and none more so than a sworn police officer,” said Imram Ali, the county’s assistant criminal division chief. “With that responsibility comes a great deal of discretion and accountability.”

Potter was arrested and placed in custody on Wednesday, but according to the Hennepin County jail’s website, she posted has bail. Her first court appearance was scheduled for Thursday afternoon at 1:30 p.m.

More details

The criminal complaint contains a combination of new and familiar details about the incident.

It says that Wright was pulled over at 1:53 p.m. on Sunday, at 63rd Avenue North and Orchard Avenue North in Brooklyn Center. Police Officer Anthony Luckey and Potter, his field training officer, made the stop.

Luckey checked Wright’s identification, the complaint says, and found he had an outstanding warrant on a gross misdemeanor weapons charge. At 2:01 p.m., Luckey and Potter approached the driver’s side of the car and asked Wright to get out and place his hands behind his back, which he did. Wright was then told he was being arrested.

Seconds later, Wright broke away from the officers and got back into the car, while Luckey tried to maintain physical control over him.

During a scuffle, Potter warned Wright that she would Tase him, but instead of the stun gun, she produced her Glock 9mm handgun with her right hand, according to the complaint. Shouting, “Taser, Taser, Taser,” she pulled the trigger on her handgun.

“Ah, he shot me,” the release quotes Wright saying, just after the shot was fired. He sped away for a short distance before crashing into another vehicle and stopping.

An ambulance was called and Wright was pronounced dead at the scene, the complaint said.

A BCA investigator examined Potter’s duty belt and saw her handgun holstered on the right side of her belt, her Taser is on the left side. Both grips were position toward her rear.

“The Taser is yellow with a black grip,” the complaint said. “Also, the Taser is set in a straight-draw position, meaning Potter would have to use her left hand to pull the Taser out of its holster.” Bodycam footage shows the gun in her right hand.

The complaint does not identify the third officer seen in the bodycam footage, positioned on the other side of Wright’s vehicle.

On Monday, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office declared Wright’s death a homicide resulting from a gunshot wound.

“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,” Ali said in the release. “Her action caused the unlawful killing of Mr. Wright and she must be held accountable.”

Protest, calls for action

The incident, which coincides with former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for the killing of George Floyd, has sparked renewed racial tensions that have seen three nights of protest.

The incident has also led to renewed calls for legislative reform meant to protect communities of color from dangerous police encounters.

One bill, being introduced Wednesday, alters the suspected offenses for which motorists can be pulled over by police. The bill is co-authored by two lawyer-legislators, Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, and Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview.

Joe Friedberg, a prominent Twin Cities defense attorney, said the charge against Potter appears appropriate based on what is seen in body-cam footage.

“I don’t have a comment on whether she is guilty of that,” he said, “but there certainly is probable cause to believe that that’s the crime that was committed—if a crime was committed.”

Attorney Bob Bennett, a Robins Kaplan partner who has handled civil cases involving police shootings, agrees that the charge is appropriate. But he is blunter in his assessment of the case.

“No reasonable officer would mistake their Taser for their gun,” Bennett said. “They’re meant not to be mistaken, by design. The weapons are not similar by weight or operational method.”

Additionally, he added, “If your body-worn camera can see it’s a gun, you can see it’s a gun. They don’t look the same.”

Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines place the crime at Severity Level 8, which calls for a 48-month presumptive sentence, with a range of between 41 and 57 months. The crime carries a maximum penalty of 10 years and a $20,000 fine.

Friedberg said 2nd-degree manslaughter is a culpable negligence charge, similar to criminal vehicular homicide—for instance, conduct leading to another person’s death while driving drunk.

Quite often, Friedberg said, courts allow downward departures for someone who is convicted of the crime, if they have no previous criminal history.

Retired Hennepin County District Court Judge Kevin Burke said second-degree manslaughter cases are not subject to durational departures. But they can receive dispositional sentence departures.

“Think of it as two questions,” he said. “Should the person go to prison (a dispositional departure grants probation)? Second, how long in prison (either the presumptive sentence, or a duration-alone departure)?”

Friedberg said the charge against Potter is consistent with other criminal cases he knows of over the past two decades, where police officers have mistaken firearms for Tasers.

“They’ve all, I believe, been charged out as second-degree manslaughter,” he said, “if the negligence is what they’d call culpable.” Friedberg lauded Orput for what he thinks must have been a difficult charging decision.

“It sounds to me like Pete Orput withstood quite a bit of political pressure and charged it properly,” he said.

News of the charges arrived one day after Potter resigned from the Brooklyn Center Police Department. Police Chief Tim Gannon also resigned Tuesday.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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