The cop who mistook her gun for a Taser (and other mysteries)
As teachable moments go, the police killing of Daunte Wright, an unarmed 20-year-old Black man by a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center police force is one for the books.
The person who is both teacher and lesson in this cautionary tale is former Officer Kim Potter. She was training a new police officer how to navigate the challenges of modern policing last weekend when she spotted and pulled over Daunte Wright for expired car tabs.
Ever since the days of the early 19th-century slave patrols that gave birth to American law enforcement’s policing of the Black body, cops are fanatical about enforcing expired tags and making sure all papers and motor vehicle protocols are up to code.
In fact, police officers are willing to risk their lives and kill a civilian if necessary if their suspicions are aroused by tinted windows, broken turn signals, expired tags, dangling air fresheners, loud music or anything perceived as a hindrance to good order.
As the “Teacher,” Officer Potter’s job was to show the new officer how maintaining good order was done. During the mentoring phase, if the student is curious enough to ask why officers risk bad outcomes when technology exists to scan the photo of expired tags or broken tail lights from a safe distance and issue tickets through the mail, there will likely be chuckles followed by fullblown mockery of such humane and practical thinking.
“If you want to go that route, you might as well leave the mindless duty of issuing tickets for expired tags, tinted windows and dangling air freshners to meter maids and high surveillance traffic cameras,” a veteran officer invested in modern policing logic will scoff.
Left unstated is the more obvious reason: Policing the Black body requires getting one’s hands dirty and risking fatal encounters over bureaucratic violations, otherwise society will descend into — chaos?
When the cops ran Daunte Wright’s name through the elaborate system erected to keep track of the Black body along with everyone else’s, they got a hit — an outstanding gross misdemeanor warrant.
When the officers attempted to arrest Daunte Wright for the warrant, he resisted and tried to get back into his car. That’s when the Teacher stepped forward with the big lesson of the day.
Despite shouting “Taser” three times to warn her colleagues of her intentions, Officer Potter, the Teacher, shot Daunte Wright in the chest using her Glock instead of her Taser.
On the body cam footage of the incident, Officer Potter, the Teacher, is distraught, utters expletives and confesses something that was obvious to everyone: “I shot him.”
The Teacher failed a fundamental test — she didn’t take the subject she was teaching seriously enough to avoid making the biggest mistake possible in her profession. Because she was scared, she used her prerogative as a civil servant invested with the power of life and death over her fellow citizens without proper regard for the public’s safety.
Daunte Wright had a warrant out for his arrest, but he was still a member of the public Officer Potter had sworn an oath nearly three decades earlier to “serve and protect.” Instead, she shot him in the chest at close range because her own fear and panic while under pressure was a more persuasive teacher than decades of training.
Citing Officer Potter’s distraught demeanor on the police body cams, Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said what sounded like a “Whoops, her bad” on steroids the next day when he speculated that she failed to detect the difference between her Glock and her Taser in the adrenaline rush of the moment.
For failing to understand that “whoops!” really isn’t a morally acceptable option when it comes to making life-or-death decisions in the field, Chief Gannon was forced to resign, too.
So how does a 26-year veteran who was tasked with teaching the department’s best practices to new officers make a “mistake” of that magnitude? That is presumably what Officer Potter’s trial for second-degree manslaughter will explore. She faces a decade in prison if convicted.
This is where it gets tricky. When it comes to the intersection of policing and race in America, those who want to apply commonsense reforms to curb police violence will always be at a disadvantage.
The status quo has its defenders. It knows the most common police practices would crumble under the slightest application of logic and scrutiny. Most laws that empower disparate outcomes sit atop a creaky edifice of centuries of structural racism that gets harder to justify as other sectors and institutions reckon with entrenched legacies of racial injustice.
Police departments, unions and conservative legislators adamantly resist police reforms because they don’t want cops to lose what remains of qualified immunity from prosecution for acts committed on duty.
They know that modern policing in America is being discredited daily thanks to the ubiquity of cellphones. They know that the white majority is finally becoming aware of how policing is conducted in the parts of America where they don’t live.
They know that most laws aren’t color-blind as enforced by departments that are overwhelmingly white and whose members have little connection to the communities they patrol.
They know that the laws have a disproportionately negative impact on people of color and that they were designed to be that way. They are not good-faith laws. They are nuisance laws that can be enforced with the death penalty whenever an officer feels sufficiently threatened and thinks he or she can get away with it.
But what can be done about it? Too many tactics with roots in 19th-century slave patrols are psychologically difficult to give up despite the danger they pose to the cops and the destabilizing effect on society.
Too many police officers are addicted to the option of wielding lethal force over their fellow citizens. A cop’s legally sanctioned “right” to take life at his or her discretion is a socially accepted way to achieve this authority on the cheap.
Only the advent of Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements has resulted in the assumptions of modern policing being seriously questioned in recent years.
The strangest thing about the killing of Daunte Wright isn’t Officer Potter mistaking her gun for a Taser. What’s even stranger is Officer Potter’s willingness, even under ideal conditions when she’s not feeling stressed, to kill someone who is guilty of a petty offense. Why allow a situation to escalate from expired tags to killing someone for running? That’s the mystery at the heart of American law enforcement.
If the cops believed that Daunte Wright presented a danger to society worthy of death, how did they come to that conclusion? Did Officer Potter get “confused” about anything else that day or does confusion only kick in when officers are afraid? If cops are afraid of huge swaths of the public, should they be allowed to carry lethal weapons if they can’t guarantee the public’s safety? What if most cops were unarmed and only an elite few are allowed to be armed?
Of course, there are those who insist that unarmed or not, resisting police for any reason is worthy of death. They scream that obedience to police authority is sacrosanct. If you run, you die! If you resist, you die! This would be considered insane anywhere else but in a nation where law enforcement has its roots in organized slave patrols.
Kim Potter says she mistook her gun for a Taser. This makes her a bad cop because her mistake cost someone his life and precipitated a national crisis. Is it worth all of the resulting pain and suffering to tolerate so many frightened cops on municipal payrolls?
It is time to reimagine the role of modern policing in a multicultural nation where slavery no longer exists. It is irrational to throw so many terrified white cops into the deep end of society’s most segregated pools and expect them to learn how to swim in the midst of their fear. Some will flounder and many will drown, especially when their teachers are as bad at swimming as they are.