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Monday, May 17, 2021

Minnesota officer who shot Daunte Wright meant to fire Taser, chief says

The shooting of Daunte Wright caused an immediate outcry across the state, protests and looting in Brooklyn Center, and recognition by President Joe Biden, who said he was praying for the Wright family and called for an investigation.

By: New York Times | Minnesota |
Updated: April 13, 2021 10:42:03 am
Minnesota officer who shot Daunte Wright meant to fire Taser, chief saysProtesters confront police near the scene of a police shooting in Brooklyn Center, Minn., on Monday, April 12, 2021. (Joshua Rashaad McFadden/The New York Times)

Written by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Julie Bosman and Shawn Hubler

The officer who fatally shot a Black man during a traffic stop near Minneapolis mistakenly confused her gun for her Taser, police officials said Monday, quickly releasing video as they tried to ease tensions in a state on edge over the Derek Chauvin trial.

In a brief clip of body camera video, officers from the Brooklyn Center Police Department can be seen trying to handcuff the driver, Daunte Wright, before he suddenly lurches back into his car. One of the officers aims a weapon at Wright and shouts, “Taser! Taser! Taser!”

She fires one round, and Wright groans in pain.

“Holy shit, I just shot him,” the officer can be heard shouting.

Minnesota officer who shot Daunte Wright meant to fire Taser, chief says A crowd gathered Sunday night April 11, 2021, near the scene of a police shooting in Brooklyn Center, Minn. (Liam James Doyle/The New York Times)

The fatal shooting Sunday took place in a region already at the center of a national reckoning over police officers’ use of force against Black people. As the investigation into Wright’s death in Brooklyn Center was beginning Monday, prosecutors in a courtroom less than 10 miles away completed the questioning of their witnesses in the trial of Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd in May.

The Twin Cities braced for unrest Monday evening, and a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was issued for much of the metro area. Protests were announced in cities including Portland, Oregon, and New York, and in Brooklyn Center, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Police Department, violating curfew as they chanted in a steady rain while officers clad in riot gear stood guard near newly erected fencing. The mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul declared states of emergency. Professional baseball, basketball and hockey games in Minnesota were postponed.

The shooting of Wright, 20, whose autopsy revealed that he was shot once in the chest, caused an immediate outcry across the state, protests and looting in Brooklyn Center, and recognition by President Joe Biden, who said he was praying for the Wright family and called for an investigation.

Minnesota officer who shot Daunte Wright meant to fire Taser, chief says Streams of smoke fill the air and loud bangs could be heard as the police in Brooklyn Center, Minn., tried to disperse crowds near the Police Department on Sunday night, April 11, 2021, following a police involved shooting. (Joshua Rashaad McFadden/The New York Times)

“We do know that the anger, pain and trauma amidst the Black community is real,” Biden said at the White House.

He also said: “In the meantime, I want to make it clear again: There is absolutely no justification — none — for looting. No justification for violence. Peaceful protest? Understandable.”

Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, angrily demanded that state lawmakers pass police reform that has languished since Floyd’s death. He said he was going straight from the news conference to the Capitol in St. Paul.

“Our time was made clear last May in Minnesota,” Walz said, alluding to the death of Floyd. “Our time to get one shot at fixing it was there. And in the midst of this trial that the world’s watching, the situation repeated itself yesterday.”

The fatal police shooting comes at a particularly fraught moment.

“Everyone in the metro area is on tenterhooks right now,” said Abigail Cerra, a Minneapolis civil rights lawyer and a member of the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission, noting that her husband, a firefighter, is among the many emergency workers throughout the region who have been told to keep their gear with them at all times as the trial proceeds.

She questioned why Wright — who the police said was stopped for driving a vehicle with an expired registration — would have been pulled over at all. “Everyone is on high alert right now,” she said. “I don’t know why they would be making traffic stops like this at this moment in time.”

The police said officers attempted to detain him after they discovered that there was a warrant for his arrest, stemming from a missed hearing on a misdemeanor gun charge.

Wright was facing two misdemeanor charges after Minneapolis police said he had carried a pistol without a permit and had run away from officers last June. Katie Wright told reporters that her son had been driving a car his family had given him two weeks ago and that he had called her as he was being pulled over.

“He said they pulled him over because he had air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror,” she said. Katie Wright added that her son had been driving with his girlfriend when he was shot. The police said a woman in the car had been hurt in a crash that occurred as the vehicle kept moving after the shooting.

The officer who shot Wright was identified Monday evening as Kim Potter, who has worked for the department for 26 years. She has been placed on administrative leave, officials said.

“It is my belief that the officer had the intention to deploy their Taser, but instead shot Mr. Wright with a single bullet,” Chief Tim Gannon of the Brooklyn Center Police Department said in a news conference.

“For all intents and purposes, I think we can look at the video and ascertain whether or not she’ll be returning,” Gannon said.

Mike Elliott, the mayor of Brooklyn Center, urged calm in the city and promised that an investigation would be conducted by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a state agency that investigates police killings in Minnesota.

“We recognize that this couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” said Elliott, the city’s first Black mayor. “We recognize that this is happening at a time when our community, when all of America — indeed, all of the world — is watching our community.”

The racial makeup of the suburb, home to 30,000 residents, was until recently mostly white, but now less than half of residents are white and nearly a third are Black.

Elliott, who has been mayor for two years, called for the officer who shot Wright to be fired. “My position is that we cannot afford to make mistakes that lead to the loss of life of other people in our profession,” he said. “And so I do fully support releasing the officer of her duties.”

Minnesota has seen more than its share of high-profile police killings, including the shootings of Philando Castile in 2016 and Jamar Clark in 2015, and the death last year of Floyd.

In the final day of the prosecution’s case against Chauvin, Floyd’s brother Philonise Floyd took the stand, telling of their upbringing in Houston. George would help his siblings get dressed for school and made “the best banana mayonnaise sandwiches,” his brother said. “George couldn’t cook, but he’ll make sure you have a snack or something.”

The state also called two expert witnesses, a cardiologist who said Floyd’s death was “absolutely preventable,” and a policing expert who said a reasonable officer would not have put Floyd facedown since he was already in handcuffs and was not a threat.

In the wake of Wright’s death Sunday, Walz and other officials in Minnesota called for policing reforms, including making sure that officers cannot mistake their guns for their Taser.

“Why can’t we have Tasers that look and feel differently?” Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul said. “That you could never mistake for deploying a firearm, so that we can ensure that that mistake, which has happened before, can never happen again.”

Ed Obayashi, a California-based expert on the use of force by law enforcement and a deputy sheriff, said that with appropriate training, it should be difficult for officers to confuse a gun with a Taser, “but unfortunately it does happen — this is not the first time and it won’t be the last.”

In most cases, said Obayashi, who is also a lawyer, the confusion occurs when officers carry both weapons on the same side of their body, or holster their stun guns on the opposite side of their body with the grip facing backward so that they can use their dominant hand to “cross-draw.”

Instances of police officers accidentally firing a handgun when they meant to draw their Tasers, while not common, are not entirely unusual, either. In 2015, a former Oklahoma reserve deputy killed an unarmed man when he accidentally grabbed his handgun. In 2018, a rookie Kansas police officer mistakenly shot a man who was fighting with a fellow officer. And in 2019, a police officer in Pennsylvania shouted “Taser!” before shooting an unarmed man in the torso.

Within hours of Wright’s death, people clashed with the police outside the Brooklyn Center police station, where officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, some of whom threw bags of garbage and rocks. On Monday evening, hundreds of protesters remained outside the police station, in violation of the city’s curfew, and occasionally lobbed water bottles and rocks over the fencing at officers. Police at times fired projectiles at the crowd and at one point released a chemical agent that caused people to start coughing.

Hundreds of additional National Guard troops were flooding the metro area, adding to troops that have been standing by during Chauvin’s trial.

Residents said they were struggling to absorb the news of another death at the hands of a police officer — while the Chauvin trial was underway in Minneapolis.

“I’m really saddened,” said Laura Vizenor, 56. “I just don’t understand it and I don’t understand how you yell ‘Taser’ and then fire your gun. It doesn’t make sense.”

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