Conversations across the nation regarding policing and the use of non-lethal and lethal force resurfaced this past week as a result of a fatal police shooting in Brooklyn Center, Minn., on Sunday.
Daunte Wright, 20, was shot to death by now former Brooklyn Center Officer Kim Potter, 48, who was arrested Wednesday and charged with second-degree manslaughter. She now faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and made her first court appearance Thursday, according to national media reports.
Then-Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon released body camera footage of the incident, and said it led him to believe the shooting was accidental and that Ms. Potter’s actions before the shooting were consistent with department standards.
In the video footage, Ms. Potter is heard warning Mr. Wright that she will use her Taser on him and is heard shouting, “Taser! Taser! Taser!”
After allegedly accidentally pulling out her 9mm glock instead of her Taser and fatally shooting the 20-year-old black man, she said, “Holy (expletive)! I just shot him.”
Police officials concluded that Ms. Potter — who had worked for the department for 26 years — mistakenly confused her gun for her Taser. Ms. Potter and Mr. Gannon both resigned from the department on Tuesday.
Mr. Wright had been pulled over for an expired tag. Officers then learned he had an outstanding warrant for a gross misdemeanor weapons charge, according to the news release from the Washington County Attorney’s Office.
The video showed him being handcuffed, then twisting away to get back into the driver’s seat. Once he was shot, he drove away for a short distance and crashed into another vehicle. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
The incident marks another black man murdered at the hands of a police officer, reopening the fresh wound of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. Protests have taken place five nights in a row outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department, and according to CNN reporting, officials anticipate protests over the shooting are only just beginning ahead of the verdict for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin who was charged in Mr. Floyd’s death.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told the News-Press that when he heard the news and saw what happened, his “heart sank.”
“It appears to have been a tragic accident, with striking similarities to what happened in 2009 during the apprehension of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit Police officer,” the sheriff said. “My sympathies go out to the family of Daunte Wright as well as to Officer Potter, whose lives changed in an instant as a result of this tragedy.”
Santa Barbara Police Interim Chief Brian Melekian told the News-Press that the incident was “sad for everybody concerned.”
“Certainly, we don’t need this, and when I say ‘we,’ I’m referring to society,” he said. “You have another African American man killed at the hands of law enforcement and you have a law enforcement officer who — by all accounts and I haven’t heard anybody discount it — made a horrendous mistake, and it resulted in somebody’s life.
“There’s no winners in this at all, and it just makes the conversation about race and policing that more challenging.”
The tragic fatality sparked conversations regarding Taser standards and which side of the belt an officer should holster their firearm versus their Taser. The Brooklyn Center Police Department reportedly follows protocol of holstering the Taser on the weak-hand side and the firearm on the strong-hand side, which matches local standards in Santa Barbara County.
Sheriff Brown said mixing up weapons is “exceptionally rare,” but officers in Santa Barbara County are still required to receive Taser training every year.
“This yearly training is designed to train deputies to perform weak-hand or cross draws of the Taser to prevent accidentally drawing a firearm thought to be a Taser, target area considerations, handcuff during Taser application and transition to other force options, as well as de-escalation techniques, and restraint techniques that do not impair respiration following the application of the Taser,” the sheriff said.
Santa Barbara Police Chief Melekian said that while he hasn’t been in the field himself for a number of years, the general strategy to de-escalation is to first try conversation and connection with the person, and if arrest is the end goal, handcuffing them as quickly as possible “so that there isn’t really time for the person to decide that maybe they don’t want to go along with the program.”
“One of the realities of policing is that you do not really know the state of mind of who you’re dealing with, so you’re continually trying to balance treating them in a respectful, appropriate way while at the same time continually evaluating whether or not they are a threat to you. That, by definition, is stressful and it’s a challenge for officers,” Chief Melekian said. “At least what I know about this case in Minnesota, you had an experienced officer and you had somebody who knew that they were wanted and did not want to be arrested … That’s a very different kind of stress than just an interaction where you’re trying to de-escalate something.”
Sheriff Brown pointed out that de-escalation is included in several Sheriff’s Office policies, and focuses on both the sanctity of life and on constant firearm and other training for the officers.
“During volatile situations, deputies face high levels of stress and adrenaline,” the sheriff said. “Although our preference is to always de-escalate and use time and distance to our advantage, sometimes these situations are so rapidly unfolding that split-second decisions must be made to employ non-lethal or lethal force options in order to prevent loss of life, serious bodily injury and to gain control of the situation.”
Chief Melekian said his conversations remain focused on Santa Barbara police, and in that regard, “Our track record in this area in terms of how seldom we use force of any kind I think speaks for itself.”
He added, “I would remind the public that police officers in this country every day have thousands and thousands and thousands of contacts with the public and under a whole range of circumstances, and almost never is force used. And of the times force is used, almost never is lethal force used.
“That doesn’t make this any less of a tragedy, and it doesn’t make the discussion about race and policing any less complex or complicated, but some context in this would be helpful. And in this case, there’s no indication that the officer was trying to be aggressive or was exceeding her authority. She just made a horrible mistake.”