By Peter Nickeas, CNN
Body camera video of former Minnesota police Officer Kim Potter fatally shooting Daunte Wright in a car during a traffic stop played a central role in her manslaughter trial.
The shooting happened in Brooklyn Center in April when Potter, 49, mistook her gun for a Taser. It also happened during the trial against former police Officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd in nearby Minneapolis.
Potter was convicted Thursday of first- and second-degree manslaughter for Wright’s death. She faces at least a decade in prison when she is sentenced next February.
Less than 24 hours after Wright’s shooting, the town’s police chief shared a 90-second video in what he said was an effort to be transparent. Jurors at Potter’s trial in December saw new body camera video that showed a different view of Wright’s encounter with police.
In the footage, Potter can be heard yelling “Taser” repeatedly before she shoots Wright, 20. After firing her handgun, she yells, “Holy sh*t! 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.
Defense attorneys argued at the trial that Potter’s actions did not rise to the level of a crime and that the use of the Taser was reasonable. Prosecutors argued her fatal error was due to recklessness and negligence.
Training and use-of-force experts who reviewed the 90-second video released by the police chief earlier this year 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 what was seen in the 90 seconds of video released in April 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 suggested 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,” Gerald Takano, an expert in use of force and training, said last month. “Weapons confusion is a single catastrophic incident. The accumulation of small errors is catastrophic in totality. Both occurred in the same instance.”
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 and an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror, police said. During the stop, officers learned he had an outstanding warrant and attempted to arrest him.
The video shows a male officer approaching a car ahead of Potter, and a second officer approaching 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 last month that it appeared the officer wasn’t sure of himself. Officers are taught to be firm when they put their hands on someone, 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 the 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 rise to one in which 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 90-second video it was 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.
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 (is) 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. Up close, like Potter was next to Wright, the “drive stun” function can be used to directly apply electricity.
“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,” Sean Hendrickson, who teaches use of force in Washington, said last month.
“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 earlier this year, 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 a 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.”
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s Brad Parks contributed to this report.