More than a decade before Daunte Wright was fatally shot during a Minnesota traffic stop on Sunday, the police killing of another young Black man drew a similar outpouring of grief and rage 2,000 miles away.
The officer’s attorneys back then — as authorities in Minnesota did this week — offered an unusual explanation for the fatal incident: He had meant to fire a Taser but instead grabbed a gun, they claimed.
“It’s totally shocking that it would occur, even yesterday,” said John Burris, the lawyer who represented Grant’s family. “But the beat goes on. Even if this one turned out to be tragic, the initial conduct, the racial profiling — that happens all the time.”
Wright, 20, had been pulled over for a traffic violation in the Minneapolis suburbs before the “accidental discharge that resulted in the tragic death,” Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said on Monday. In body camera video played at a news conference, Potter shouts “I’ll Tase you!” and then “Taser! Taser! Taser!” before shooting at Wright.
“Holy s---, I shot him,” she says moments later, seemingly realizing she had fired her gun instead.
Since pistol-grip Tasers were introduced in 1999, police have blamed more than 10 other incidents on such a mix-up, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, including at least three that were fatal: There was Everardo Torres, who had been handcuffed in the back of a police car in California, and Eric Courtney Harris, who was shot after he ran from a gun-sale sting in Tulsa.
But the incident that resonated most widely across the country was Grant’s — one of the first such killings to be filmed and posted on social media, an early exhibit for how video evidence of use-of-force could elicit mass demonstrations about racism and police violence.
Four years later, his story would be recounted in the critically acclaimed film “Fruitvale Station,” starring Michael B. Jordan as Grant, with real-life footage from the night of his killing.
Grant, a retail worker and father to a 4-year-old, had been heading home with friends on a packed BART train from San Francisco, full of crowds celebrating the New Year. He began fighting aboard the train with another passenger, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, a man he had once been in jail with.
Others aboard the train called the police about the brawl. When it pulled into Oakland’s Fruitvale Station, Grant and four friends were detained by BART police officers. But the officers’ conduct was so rough that bystanders began speaking up — and filming.
One officer reportedly shouted racial slurs and profanities at Grant. Another, Johannes Mehserle, tried to handcuff him, pushing him from his knees to his chest, before firing a fatal shot into Grant’s back.
Burris said Mehserle did not need to pull out any kind of weapon. But at his bail hearing, some defense witnesses said that the officer had announced he was about to use his Taser, not his gun. One witness, a psychologist who frequently testifies on behalf of police, described the incident by coining the phrase “slips and capture” to describe an error under high pressure.
Amid national fallout over Grant’s death, Burris said that many police departments edited their operating manuals to ensure that officers reached for the right weapon. Some agencies began instructing officers to wear Tasers on the opposite side of their dominant hand, turned backward to be easily taken out.
“It was something that no one had been thinking about but it became a real issue,” he said. “Officers had to be trained if not retrained on this issue of making sure they reach for the right weapon.”
Yet Grant’s uncle, Cephus Johnson, said Wright’s death in Minnesota is more than just a failure to prepare.
“It’s not like [the officers] didn’t know who he was. And so even if he attempted to jump into the vehicle to take off, there was no need to shoot a weapon or pull out a Taser,” he told KNTV. “This is not about training. This is about cultural policing being changed and the blue code of silence being broken.”
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