April 14, 2021

Within 24 hours of Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter killing Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in the Minnesota town on April 11, the police department released body-worn camera footage of the incident. Just as quickly, Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon anchored conversation around the shooting to the phrase “accidental discharge” (both Potter and Gannon have since resigned, and Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter).

This phrase, which has been repeated in dozens of articles since the April 12 press conference, obscures Potter’s culpability in Wright’s death. Potter’s discharge was not accidental; that is, it wasn’t the result of an unforeseeable failure. It was negligent, the result of an entirely irresponsible disregard for basic policy and procedure around weapons.

Potter, who Gannon said had the “intent” of firing her Taser at Wright as he struggled against the officer trying to handcuff him, instead fired her department-issued Glock handgun. She killed Wright with a single shot to the chest.

A “negligent discharge” occurs when there is a violation of policy, protocol, or standard operating procedure which results in the discharge of a firearm. If it doesn’t result in death or injury, it might not be criminal, but it is absolutely unprofessional. Minnesota law differentiates between an “accidental discharge” — which might be caused by a mechanical or chemical malfunction in the gun itself, the magazine, or the ammunition — and a wilfully “reckless” discharge; for instance, firing into the air as a form of celebration or otherwise disregarding firearm safety. Potter’s disregard for department procedure and best practices was far from accidental, and her recklessness directly resulted in Wright’s death.

In the U.S. military, a negligent discharge can result in jail time, a fine, or discharge from the military. Police are generally aware of the difference between a negligent and accidental discharge, as evidenced by it being the subject of a story in Police magazine. Within BCPD, any discharge of a firearm, negligent or deliberate, necessitates a written report at minimum.

There are fundamental differences between an accidental and negligent discharge, especially when it results in death. Killing someone due to gross negligence is a crime with a perpetrator. Someone who dies in an “accident” might not be said to have been killed by someone. By drawing and deploying her firearm instead of her Taser, Potter killed Wright, and journalists have a duty to make it clear that a young Black man died because, yet again, a police officer acted outside of the rules.

The rules in question can be found in Brooklyn Center Police Department’s standard operating procedures, which are posted on their homepage.

BCPD policy states, “The use of the TASER device on certain individuals should generally be avoided unless the totality of the circumstances indicates that other available options reasonably appear ineffective or would present a greater danger to the officer, the subject or others, and the officer reasonably believes that the need to control the individual outweighs the risk of using the device.”

Among the types of individuals that the department suggests officers avoid using a Taser on are “vehicle operators,” because a Taser can cause involuntary loss of muscle control and cause a driver to lose control of their vehicle. Wright was operating his vehicle when he was shot. After being removed from the car by officers, he got back in as they tried to handcuff him and he attempted to flee.

An officer can use a Taser on a subject who is “physically resisting,” according to BCPD policy. However, the policy also states, “Mere flight from a pursuing officer, without other known circumstances or factors, is not good cause for the use of the TASER device to apprehend an individual.” It also says, “Control devices and TASER (TM) devices should be considered only when the participants’ conduct reasonably appears to present the potential to harm officers, themselves or others, or will result in substantial property loss or damage.”

The video does not appear to show Wright fulfilling these criteria.

The policy also says, “Reasonable efforts should be made to target lower center mass and avoid the head, neck, chest and groin.” Potter shot Wright in the chest.

Taser’s website suggests a deployment distance of 7 feet or greater, while Potter fired her weapon from much closer than that.

Even if Potter intended to draw her Taser, it’s clear she would have been using it entirely outside of protocol. (And if she had drawn and used her Taser in that manner, we would never have heard about it. That kind of reckless use of less-lethal weapons happens every day.)

The department mandates, “When carried while in uniform, officers shall carry the TASER device in a reaction-side holster on the side opposite the duty weapon.” This is commonly called “off hand” carrying, and normally means that the Taser is carried on the left side for a right-handed officer. In the released video, the officer with Potter has his yellow Taser on the left-hand side of his belt. As the video shows, Potter draws her handgun from her right-hand side. According to policy, Potter would have trained at least once a year with her Taser and practiced “reaction-hand draws or cross-draws to reduce the possibility of accidentally drawing and firing a firearm.”

She did shout, “I’ll tase you! Taser, Taser, Taser!” as is policy. But the Glock she was holding looks and feels nothing like a Taser. A Taser x26, a commonly used model among law enforcement agencies, has a thumb-activated safety, weapon-mounted light, a half-sized grip, and an aiming laser. It’s also bright yellow. The Glock handgun issued to Potter has none of those things. It is black, weighs three times as much as a Taser, has a full-sized grip, and no light or laser.

Potter would have trained with her handgun once a quarter, and qualified with it annually during the 26 years she spent at the department. To confuse the two weapons, draw from the wrong side, not realize that her handgun and Taser are totally different in their operation, and then attempt to deploy the Taser in violation of protocol is negligent, especially given that Wright appeared to be attempting to flee and Potter was not in any appreciable danger at the time.

Drawing the wrong weapon from the wrong side, and then firing it anyway, does not meet the standard of an “accident.” There was no malfunction with Potter’s weapon. She put her finger on the trigger, pointed it at Wright, pulled the trigger, and killed him. It’s a clear failure in training and protocol and shows negligence on the part of Potter or the department.

In addition, Potter fired her Glock from a single hand, without her arm locked. This is not the stance of someone expecting the recoil of a handgun. Officers normally use a two-handed stance whenever possible.

After firing her Glock, Potter seems to drop it. Obviously, this is unsafe as the weapon is now out of her control and could be pointed at any officers or bystanders. A Taser can be dropped immediately after firing in order to allow the officer to control the subject while the device shocks them.

As Potter dropped her gun, she realized she had discharged the wrong weapon and had shot Wright. But she did not get here by accident; she got here by recklessly neglecting the training that she had been undertaking for more than five years longer than Wright had been alive.

As reporters, it is imperative that we not parrot police language without doing our due diligence. Potter has been part of questionable practices around police shootings before. We can and should question the commitment of her and the department to sharing the whole truth about incidents in which they kill people. It’s our responsibility to investigate and share that truth and not let police write our stories.

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James Stout is a freelance journalist and historian. His Ph.D. dissertation looked at physical culture and anti-fascism in the lead-up to the Spanish civil war.
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