The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kim Potter saw Daunte Wright clearly. But belatedly.

Testifying in her own defense on Dec. 17, former Brooklyn Center, Minn., police officer Kim Potter described the context of the April 2021 fatal shooting. (Video: AP/Court TV)
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It’s impossible to fathom what justice should look like in the death of Daunte Wright. He was 20 years old when he was pulled over by two Brooklyn Center police officers in April and the minor traffic stop in the Minneapolis suburb escalated into a scuffle.

From the beginning, the stop was a mess. The rookie police officer approached Wright because of expired license tags at a time when the country’s motor vehicle offices were backlogged because of the coronavirus pandemic. He stopped him for a trifle — for an air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. Wright’s paperwork was a mess. He called his mother.

When officers discovered Wright had an outstanding warrant for carrying a handgun in a public place without a state permit, they tried to handcuff him. Wright resisted. Kim Potter, who was a training officer, stepped in to assist. As the situation turned chaotic, she yelled “Taser, Taser, Taser,” before mistakenly shooting and killing Wright with her gun. In the immediate aftermath, Potter screamed expletives over her deadly actions and cried out to God in her distress. She tearfully reckoned with what she believed to be her due punishment. And she saw Wright with a clarity — a belated clarity — that too often gets clouded over in our culture.

“Holy s---! I just shot him,” Potter yelled, according to body-camera video. “I grabbed the wrong f---ing gun. I shot him.”

“Oh, my God!” she repeated, seemingly in dismay.

“I’m going to go to prison,” Potter said according to prosecutors. “I killed a boy.”

In the havoc and in her panic, Potter managed to see Wright as a boy — not condescendingly or dismissively, but humanely. She recognized him as someone who, despite having a toddler of his own, called his mother when he was stopped by police. She acknowledged the he was still immature enough to act irrationally in the face of authority. He was someone with decades of possibilities ahead. He was a boy still prone to making rash decisions and big mistakes. And she had killed him over what began as a near-nothing.

In that fleeting moment, Potter saw what she had done.

During Potter’s trial for first- and second-degree manslaughter, the prosecution didn’t argue that she intended to use her service weapon rather than her Taser. And the defense didn’t deny that Potter killed Wright. The jury was tasked with a simple but impossible question: What does justice look like in the aftermath of a horrific accident, a grave mistake, an unforgivable act by an officer who has sworn to serve and protect?

The legal issues are those of recklessness and negligence with a firearm; the human issues are about fallibility and remorse. Accidents can still be a crime. Declaring something a mistake is not a defense. And regret is not the equivalent of time served. Juries are sworn to make judgments based on the law. Yet, every case is, in some way, a testament to the human condition.

Wright’s death occurred while the country was in the thick of the Derek Chauvin trial, during which the former Minneapolis police officer was found guilty of murdering George Floyd. Chauvin had wrestled the unarmed Black man to the ground, handcuffed him and then kept Floyd pinned face down under his knee as he struggled to breathe. Floyd’s killing had the country roiling with anger. Civic upheaval highlighted racial disparities within the criminal justice system. The failures and biases within police departments were front of mind as the country reckoned with the reality that making mistakes was a privilege that so many Black men and women did not have.

The verdict: His life mattered

In the midst of this, Potter, a White woman with 26 years of experience as a police officer, shot Wright, whose father is Black and whose mother is White. Potter made a mistake, her lawyer Earl Gray argued. A mistake is not a crime, he said with a mix of ferocity and exasperation. In fact, Gray said, “Daunte Wright caused his own death” because he tried to climb back into his car as he was being handcuffed, and if he’d only thrown his hands up in surrender, none of this would have happened. Potter made a mistake, Gray said to the jury. Daunte Wright made a … what?

Potter testified during her trial. Her facial expression was dazed and mournful. She wailed and her body shook. Her face turned bright red and her fingers pulled on her hair as if she were at war with those fine blond strands. Her lawyer described her not so much as a former police officer but as a woman, one dressed in florals and a pale yellow cardigan, who made a mistake. Potter is a mere human, he said. In the defense’s description of the traffic stop, Wright certainly wasn’t a boy. Sometimes, he wasn’t even characterized as human. He was simply “the car. ”

Between gasps for air, with her voice shifting into an ever-higher pitch, she recounted the events before and after the shooting. During her time on the stand, her recollections were spotty. She covered her face in her hands, wept and said: “I’m sorry it happened. I’m so sorry.”

During cross-examination on Dec. 17, former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter testified that she did not render aid after fatally shooting Daunte Wright. (Video: AP/Court TV)

It’s impossible to tease out her sorrow over Wright’s death from the anguish over her own life, which is forever altered. Her personal pain is forever entwined with the agony her actions have inflicted on others. Perhaps Potter wept for what she has taken from Wright and his family. Maybe she wept because of the burden that she will carry as she moves forward. It may well have been some bleak swirl of all those emotions: some selfish, others empathetic.

Justice may well be an impossibility in this case. Accountability may be the best that can be achieved. Police officers should have to atone for their deadly mistakes. And Daunte Wright should have survived his trivial one.