90 seconds of video will be key in trial of Kimberly Potter, the officer who killed Daunte Wright
Originally Published: 30 NOV 21 09:42 ET
(CNN) -- Widely circulated body camera video of a suburban Minneapolis police officer fatally shooting Daunte Wright in a car during a traffic stop is likely to play a central role as she goes on trial Tuesday for her role in his death.
The shooting appears to be the result of Officer Kimberly Potter, 49, mistaking her gun for a stun gun, and happened in Brooklyn Center, a few miles from Minneapolis, during the trial against Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd.
The town's police chief shared some video less than 24 hours after the shooting, to be transparent.
In the body camera footage, Potter can be heard yelling "Taser" repeatedly before she shoots Wright, 20. After firing her handgun, she yells, "Holy s***! I just shot him!"
Video footage has also played a crucial role in recent high-profile homicide cases, resulting a in guilty verdict against Chauvin, not guilty verdicts against Kyle Rittenhouse for shooting three people during unrest last year, and guilty verdicts in the case of three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.
Potter was originally charged with second-degree manslaughter in April and prosecutors added a first-degree manslaughter charge in early September. She faces at least a decade in prison if convicted. Jury selection began Tuesday at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis with opening arguments scheduled for December 8.
In a filing last month, Potter's attorneys said they might assert her gun use was an innocent mistake, an accident, and that the use of the Taser was reasonable. While mistaking a handgun for a Taser is rare, and central to the manslaughter charges against Potter, other aspects of the interaction are likely to come under scrutiny during the trial.
Training and use-of-force experts who reviewed the video cautioned against drawing too sweeping a conclusion based on the single video alone -- one called reviewing an incident through that lens is like "looking through a straw."
But the 90 seconds the city released raised red flags, not just because of the confusion over the gun but for how the interaction unfolded before Potter drew her gun on Wright, who was the subject of an arrest warrant. The video suggests deficiencies in the training requirements and professional standards for officers in the department, with small failures cascading until Potter shot Wright.
"It was catastrophic in a couple ways," said Gerald Takano, a use of force and training expert. "Weapons confusion is a single catastrophic incident. The accumulation of small errors is catastrophic in totality. Both occurred in the same instance."
The state agency investigating the case hasn't released any information about its criminal investigation. A spokesperson for the state's Department of Public Safety didn't respond to a request for comment. When the police chief released the video, he said the state agency didn't condone the release. Attorneys for the officer declined to comment for this story.
City officials haven't released any information about any internal investigation, which would not just look at the mistaken use of the Taser but any other rules violations uncovered during the investigation. Brooklyn Center officials haven't released body-worn or dash-mounted camera videos that might offer other viewpoints of the interaction that would help investigators determine whether the move to draw a Taser was within police department policy. It's not clear whether other body-worn camera footage exists. City officials declined to comment.
What we know about the traffic stop
Wright was with driving on a Sunday afternoon in April when police pulled him over for an expired tag, police said. During the stop, officers learned he had an outstanding warrant and attempted to arrest him.
Video shows a male officer, whose name hasn't been released, approaching a car ahead of Potter, and a second officer approach the car on the passenger side. Potter said "have him step out," and the male officer in front asks Wright to step out of the car.
The officers approached the car in a standard way for traffic stops, according to experts. One officer contacts the driver and is supposed to lead the interaction, while another on the passenger side keeps an eye on other occupants and the surroundings. Potter is behind the lead officer, on the driver's side.
Potter appears to say "have him step out," and another officer says "do me a favor" and "step out of the car." The sound of passing traffic and the poor playback quality of the video released make it difficult to hear any other parts of the conversation between Wright and the male officer.
One of the officers says Wright is under arrest, Potter says "you have a warrant," and one of the officers repeats that Wright has a warrant.
It's at this point that some trouble begins -- with the contact officer not able to quickly handcuff Wright.
The officer got Wright out of the car, "so he had compliance. Got his hands behind his back, but (the officer) didn't fully position the suspect before going through applications to cuffs, mechanics of cuffs," Takano said. "Unholstering and putting them on, how to take out, how to grip, what order ... should only take about two seconds from first touching of hand to first cuff to second cuff done."
While the officer had Wright standing, the movement to get him cuffed was not swift or fast. Standard practice is to position someone for arrest first, then handcuff them, then search them for weapons, experts said.
"(The officer) didn't do that, he kind of has hands behind his back, almost searching around the waist," Takano said. "That's not best practice."
Jon Blum, a use of force expert, said it appeared the officer wasn't sure of himself. Officers are taught that when they put their hands on someone to be firm, because it communicates the seriousness of the interaction.
"Hands behind the back, do not move. Cuffs in hand, boom, boom on. Done and over with," he said. "Obviously he didn't have a good grip, (Wright) broke away pretty quick ... (the officer) didn't seem like he was in control of what was going on, lacked confidence, and didn't do it the way he should have. It doesn't excuse (Wright). But he could have done better, absolutely."
Once Wright started wrestling away, uncuffed, Potter moved in closer. Potter's hands are both empty the first time they appear on video, but after she reaches in toward Wright, one hand emerges with a piece of paper.
"Once (Wright) stiffens up and shows he's non-compliant and there's another officer there, that person's job is to move in immediately. Two officers with hands on the person. She didn't grab him, I don't understand why she did not grab him," Takano said. "It's baffling to me."
"She's holding the piece of paper while (Wright) is struggling, she's not doing much while the other officer is trying to get control of Mr. Wright while he's trying to get back into the car," Takano said.
The importance of quickly cuffing someone is that making decisions become more difficult under threat than when there's less or no threat, experts said. Quick custody of someone under arrest lowers the risk that any situation will arise to one where an officer uses force.
"Whenever force is used, the sooner I can stop it, (there's) less likely for injury to everybody. Not even deadly force -- Taser or pepper spray or hands on ... the longer it takes to stop, the worse it can get for everyone, it increases the likelihood of injury," Blum said. "Fatigue sets in, there's all these other things. If you're having hand-to-hand fight with someone on the side of the road, there's chances it could go into the road, that's more dangerous. There's all different environmental parameters on why you should stop it sooner rather than later."
The 'level of resistance' was not clear
The use of Tasers varies by jurisdictions but from the single video it's not clear that Wright's resistance would have been an offense that would justify the use of a Taser to help take him into custody, Takano said.
Brooklyn Center hasn't released any other video of the incident, and it's not clear what third-party video investigators from the state investigating agency may have located. Use of force is judged by a standard outlined in a Supreme Court ruling that outlined factors for considering whether force is reasonable: the nature of the offense, the threat to officers or others, and whether someone's resisting or fleeing.
"These are factors that determine totality, and totality in determining reasonableness," Takano said.
The video "doesn't show what the level of resistance is," Takano said. "There's no indicators, was he trying to punch, assault, kick, or was he trying to get away, to get in his car and drive away. But there's so much camera jumbling and repositioning of her around the other officers that we don't get a clear picture of what's happening."
Assaultive behavior -- such as kicking while getting into the car -- would have gone some way toward explaining the move to grab a Taser, he said
"Person not complying and pulling away, wanted for a minor offense, Taser probably not justified use of force to begin with," Takano said. "If he was only passively resisting, pulling away, that's defensive. Offensive would be trying to assault -- that's where the Taser starts becoming justified as an option."
There's some similarity between Tasers and guns -- both have a pistol grip -- but weight, color, and how the weapon is handled should all be flags when drawing the weapon. There's no single standard in how they should be carried, either. Some departments forbid officers from carrying on the same side as their guns, but allow for the gun hand to draw it from across the body. Others require it be carried on the weak hand side, to limit the chance of confusion.
Tasers also can be used different ways. From a distance of about 20 feet, it can fire two prongs that separate over the distance before attaching to the body, ideally in the chest and below the waist. In close, like Potter was next to Wright, the "drive stun" function can be used to directly apply electricity.
Depending on the model of Taser, its user would have to remove a cartridge before using the drive stun function. That's a significant movement that, if Potter intended to drive stun Wright, she would have had to make and in making should have realized she was holding a gun.
"That handgun is a Glock, which has no external safety or manipulation, whereas a Taser, no matter which, there's some external safety that you have to manipulate," said Sean Hendrickson, who teaches use of force in Washington.
"In cognitive overload, the idea is that you resort to training. System one of the brain is fight/flight driving your behavior, that's where you're so underwater at that point, you draw a gun and believe it's a Taser," he said. "That's the only way I can wrap my head around what I saw."
Hendrickson said the situation, from the single video released, didn't seem like it was "unfolding at a rate that would equate to cognitive overload like that."
Even if Potter had drawn the Taser, Hendrickson said he wasn't sure what the goal of the Taser use would have been.
"If it does work, his body locks up, I don't know how that helps," Hendrickson said. "If you look at video and how close, she's right inside the open door, at the edge, and those probes won't spread far enough to achieve neuromuscular incapacitation and that's the goal. If you achieved it, he'd be locked up in that seat, it's hard to manipulate him. It's confusing, tactically, what the end goal was with the Taser."
The impact of training and policy
"At the end of the day, weapons confusion is just a symptom, and you have so many symptoms here," Takano said. "That's just what we can see with procedures. We haven't even talked about training on decision making."
There's no uniform training for anything in law enforcement. There are best practices, identified by experts, training outfits, or advocacy groups. Each state sets mandatory minimum curriculum taught as officers go through their initial training, but states vary widely in how they ensure those are met. There's more variance once officers are out of the academy.
"The better states might mandate 40 annual in-service (hours) over different topic areas," Takano said. "Departments gripe about that being too much. That's some of the better states. Some have less."
Training is blocked out by hours. Annual gun qualifying -- which is just to be qualified, not to be proficient -- could take hours.
"That's not combat, that's not decision making. That's, can you point your gun the right way, shoot a paper target, not hit yourself in the foot, and hit paper a number of times out of 100."
There's usually a day, or half a day, spent on legal updates. Then there's "flavor of the year," which could be whatever topic may be in the news or the result of some controversy. There's other topics that usually require some update -- juveniles, diversity, mental illness, people in crisis, career survival, professional ethics.
"That has nothing to do with the required skills, known activities such as arresting people, dealing with non-compliance, high-priority types of calls ... For any agency to do practicals, it's always going to significantly increase training time," Takano said.
Many cities are staffed below budgeted strength; the idea of adding another 40 hours of training for each officer can seem like a luxury, especially to retrain basic, foundational skills learned in the academy.
But officers everywhere have the same general powers, and the risk of poor training or not prioritizing the basics could be just as catastrophic in a small department as a large one, Blum said.
"I don't care whether it's LAPD, NYPD, or a police department with six officers. You have to have officers with critical decision-making abilities," Blum said. "They have powers of authority, arrest powers, very few folks have this. They need to have that (ability). I don't care where you work."
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