Editorial: Cautionary Tale

Officers should heed the lessons of the Kimberly Potter case and train regularly with all of their tools.

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Former Brooklyn Center, MN, police officer Kimberly Potter is now in prison, serving what is most likely to be 13 months with good behavior followed by six months of supervised release for killing 20-year-old Daunte Wright. It’s a sad end to a law enforcement career that began in 1995.

A field training officer, Potter was working with a trainee on the afternoon of April 11, 2021. The trainee was driving and he noticed a Buick sedan making a right turn from a left lane. The vehicle also had an expired tag, and as has been much publicized, an air freshener hanging from the  rearview mirror, a violation of Minnesota law.

Potter and the trainee stopped the Buick, which was driven by Wright and occupied by Wright and a female passenger. A background check revealed that Wright was wanted for failure to appear on a charge of carrying a gun without a permit. The decision was made to take him into custody. Wright had other ideas. He resisted and tried to flee by driving away in the vehicle. Officer Potter intended to draw her TASER and use it on Wright. Instead she drew her duty pistol and killed him.

The killing of a young black man by a white officer in suburban Minneapolis less than a year after George Floyd in-custody death had major repercussions. Potter resigned, there were protests in the Twin Cities area and in other communities nationwide, the chief of police and the city manager resigned under fire for not crucifying the officer, and criminal charges were filed.

Local prosecutors originally charged Potter with second-degree manslaughter, which covers negligence. Then state attorney general and anti-police progressive Keith Ellison got involved. Ellison’s office took over the prosecution and charged Potter with first-degree manslaughter, a totally indefensible overcharge for a mistake. In a statement, the attorney general’s office said, “The complaint alleges that former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter committed first-degree manslaughter by recklessly handling a firearm when she fatally shot Daunte Wright.”

The trial began on Nov. 30 with jury selection. It ended two days before Christmas with that same jury rendering guilty verdicts for both second-degree manslaughter and first-degree manslaughter. Potter’s defense team argued throughout the trial that Potter’s shooting of Wright was a mistake. The jury chose to convict her anyway, despite the fact that first-degree manslaughter did not apply. Many believe they were influenced by threats of rioting if Potter was acquitted.

After her conviction, Potter faced the possibility of eight years in prison, more if presiding judge Regina Chu decided she needed to be punished beyond the state sentencing guidelines. Amazingly, the judge showed mercy.

Chu gave an eloquent speech explaining her decision. She said prison serves four purposes: retribution, incapacitation (getting the predators out of the herd), deterrence, and rehabilitation. The judge said Potter did not need to be rehabilitated or deterred or even separated from the public. So the only thing that was left was to punish her. “There rightfully should be some accountability,” the judge said.

Many people listening to the judge’s speech probably expected that accountability to be much more punitive than the 24 months Chu levied on Potter. But the judge knew Potter had never intended to kill or even harm Daunte Wright. “This is a cop who made a tragic mistake,” she said.

Activists, Daunte Wright’s parents, and their attorney—Ben Crump—were enraged at the “light” sentence.  But state Attorney General Ellison remained fairly mute on the subject. The former Democratic congressman issued a statement on Judge Chu’s sentencing that read in part, “I accept her judgment. I urge everyone to accept her judgment.” Even Ellison knew he overcharged Officer Potter.  

That’s a concise version of the story of Officer Kimberly Potter, who is now serving her sentence in Minnesota. And it should be a cautionary tale for officers. You need to do much more training with all of your tools.

Last year immediately after the Daunte Wright shooting and the revelation that Officer Potter mistakenly shot the man while thinking she was firing her TASER, I interviewed internationally recognized law enforcement trainer Dave Smith for a POLICE “Coffee Break” podcast. Smith believes Potter experienced “slip and capture.”

Slip and capture is a phenomenon where a person does something out of habit while intending to do something else. In this case, drawing a duty pistol when intending to draw a TASER. Smith posits that Potter had much more experience drawing her pistol than her TASER, so because of the stress she was under during the attempted arrest of Wright, she drew her handgun.

Smith says officers need to learn from the Daunte Wright shooting and “program” themselves not to repeat it. He advises that officers should mentally and physically rehearse drawing their TASERs much more often.

If somebody had given Kimberly Potter this advice before the Daunte Wright incident, she might still be on the job in Brooklyn Center, instead of spending the next 13 months in an administrative solitary confinement cell. 

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