ST. PAUL — The police officer who fatally shot a 20-year-old Black man in Brooklyn Center, Minn., Sunday mistakenly fired her firearm, instead of her Taser, the suburb’s police chief said Monday.
In other words, Daunte Wright’s death was a mistake — “an accidental discharge,” according to statements made Monday, April 12, by Police Chief Tim Gannon, who played a portion of video recorded by the officer’s body camera at an afternoon news conference.
In the video, the officer can be heard warning Wright that she will tase him, then yelling “Taser! Taser! Taser!” as she draws her actual firearm and fires one shot before screaming “Holy sh–! I shot him!”
“As I watch the video and listen to the officer’s commands it is my belief that the officer had the intention to deploy their Taser, but instead shot Mr. Wright with a single bullet,” Gannon said. “This appears to me, from what I viewed in the officer’s reaction and distress immediately after, that this was an accidental discharge that resulted in the tragic death of Mr. Wright.”
Wright appears to have been unarmed; Gannon said no gun was found in or near the vehicle that Wright was pulled over in.
Monday evening, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office said Wright died of a single gunshot wound to the chest and classified the death as a homicide.
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension identified the police officer who shot Wright as Kim Potter, a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center Police Department. Potter has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.
Region on edge
The revelations come at an extraordinary moment for race relations in the Twin Cities — prompting Gov. Tim Walz to declare a 7 p.m. curfew for Ramsey, Hennepin, Dakota and Anoka counties and the postponements of Monday’s games by the Minnesota Twins, Wild and Timberwolves.
The region was already on edge amid this week’s developments in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the white cop on trial for murder after kneeling on George Floyd’s neck — killing him, in the eyes of prosecutors, who are wrapping up their side of the case this week.
Wright’s shooting Sunday afternoon following a traffic stop soon prompted protests that turned into violence Sunday night, April 11, with Gannon saying concrete blocks and frozen soda cans were hurled at police officers while a number of businesses in Brooklyn Center were looted, with some property damage reported in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
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What we know
Many aspects of Wright’s killing remain unclear, but new details emerged Monday that portrayed a fairly routine traffic stop that escalated into an arrest before it turned deadly — apparently by accident.
According to statements by Gannon, Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and the medical examiner’s office, shortly after 2 p.m. Sunday, officers pulled over the vehicle Wright was driving near 63rd Avenue North and Kathrene Drive because it appeared to have expired tabs. It wasn’t entirely clear if there might have been another reason connected to the appearance or characteristics of the vehicle itself.
Court records show Wright was being sought after failing to appear in court on charges that he fled from officers and possessed a gun without a permit during an encounter with Minneapolis police in June. In that case, a statement of probable cause said police got a call about a man waving a gun who was later identified as Wright.
In the one-minute video, a different officer is attempting to handcuff Wright, when Wright appears to wrestle himself free and get back into the car.
A female’s voice is heard yelling “Taser! Taser! Taser!” as the video shows a handgun extended toward Wright. Gannon said officers are trained to yell “Taser” to alert nearby officers that the electrical stun gun is about to be fired.
Gannon said officers carry their handguns on their dominant side and their Tasers on their weak side; a right-handed officer would carry their firearm on their right side. Gannon seemed to be implying that the officer reached for the non-lethal Taser on the hip of her actual firearm. The video shows the firearm in her right hand.
Tasers are often — but not always — accented by a distinct color. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the one the officer was wearing is, but her body camera video shows a bright yellow Taser on the left hip of another officer.
“Our hearts are aching right now,” said Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott. “We are in pain right now and we recognize that this couldn’t have happened at a worse time. … We are all collectively devastated and we have been for over a year now by the killing of George Floyd, and that we continue to be distressed as we go through the Derek Chauvin trial.”
Gannon called Potter “a very senior officer.” He declined to say whether he thought she should be fired, noting that the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension leads investigations into officer-involved shootings.
Police body-worn camera footage played at today's news conference:
Warning: This video contains graphic images that might not be suitable for all viewers.
What the video shows
Here’s what the portion of the released video shows — from the viewpoint of Potter:
Two other officers approach a white Buick, one on either side and the video approaches the driver’s side of the car.
Wright steps out of the driver’s side, and an officer turns him around so Wright is facing the vehicle. He begins to handcuff Wright as Potter draws closer, and Potter appears to put her hand on Wright’s arm and removes a white slip of paper, perhaps an insurance card.
Suddenly, there’s a commotion, and Wright appears to break free and get back in the driver’s seat.
Potter points her gun at Wright as an apparently female voice can be heard yelling “Taser! Taser! Taser!”
The sound of the gunshot isn’t clear from the audio presented to the media, but according to Gannon’s description, this is when Potter shot Wright.
Wright appears to groan and Potter immediately reaches her off hand out towards him and yells “Holy s----!” as she pulls back her firing hand. The car begins to drive off and she says, ”I shot him.”
Those moments — from the beginning of the struggle to the moment Potter exclaims that she shot him — encompass 20 seconds.
Charges could come fast
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said Monday he’s sent the case to the Washington County attorney’s office for review after the BCA’s investigation.
The five county attorneys in the metro area previously adopted a new practice of referring police deadly force cases to other county attorneys or the state attorney general “to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest,” Freeman said in a statement.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, whose office is reviewing the case, called it a “tragedy” on Monday evening.
Orput said he and Imran Ali, assistant chief of the county attorney’s criminal division, would meet with investigators from the Minnesota Bureau of Apprehension on Tuesday morning and expect to have a charging decision made by Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m not going to go a week or two weeks or several weeks,” Orput said. “This needs to be done with the utmost alacrity. The public wants to know what is going to happen.”
But Orput said the decision won’t be made public until he and Ali have had a chance to discuss it with Wright’s family, he said. “It will depend upon their availability,” he said. “I feel real strongly that I’m not going to tell anybody what is going on until I have had a chance to tell the family directly. That’s how I would want to be treated if I were a victim, and that’s how I am going to treat them.”
Orput said he had seen the video of Wright’s killing and that should help prosecutors make a charging decision.
“Unlike a typical case where you don’t have any video, and you have to rely on witness statements, that helps a lot at least in some part,” he said, “but there is context which I will need.”
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump and co-counsel Jeff Storms will represent Wright’s family. They’re the same attorneys who represent the family of George Floyd; the Minneapolis City Council recently signed off on a $27 million settlement to Floyd’s family.