Across North America, there has been significant debate over police funding, presence and the overall relevancy of having established police forces in modern society. This debate has only become more prevalent as occurrences such as the death of 20-year-old father, son, uncle, and friend Daunte Wright continue to happen at the hands of objectively incompetent police officers. This article will explain what happened on April 11, 2021, the events that followed as a result, and the main differences between a police-issued taser and firearm.
The Death of Daunte Wright
On Sunday, April 11, 2021, a single shot rang out after a traffic stop a mere 10 miles away from the courthouse where police officer Derek Chauvin was standing trial for the murder of George Floyd. Kim Potter of the Brooklyn Center Police Department, a 26-year veteran and training officer, shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright. This is a story of yet another officer who took a Black life away, only to be met with the excuses of an outdated brotherhood of men and women, who clearly have improper and insufficient training. Officer Potter claimed she meant to unholster her taser rather than her firearm, with body-cam footage corroborating this as she can be heard shouting “taser!” several times before firing a single, deadly shot. Now, the public is expected to believe that Potter intended her words and not the actions she carried out. That Daunte Wright’s death was the result of what Police Chief Tim Gannon described as an “accidental discharge.”
Figure 1 – Daunte Wright & Son/ Figure 2 – Protestors at Brooklyn Center
Unsurprisingly, hundreds of demonstrators poured onto the streets of Brooklyn Center on Sunday and Monday nights, following the shooting, which managed to inject even more frustration and anxiety into the region with the trial of Derek Chauvin occurring nearby, which was heading into its third week. On Sunday night, outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department, protesters gathered, chanting and throwing bricks and cans at officers, and approximately 20 businesses within a nearby mall were broken into. This resulted in the Mayor declaring a state of emergency on Monday, with a curfew being implemented from Monday at 7:00pm to 6:00am on Tuesday. On Monday evening, demonstrators gathered again outside the station, chanting “killer cop”, and by 7:00pm the police declared the gathering as unlawful, making attempt to disperse the crowd utilizing rioting gear such as tear gas and flash-bang grenades. As the night went on, a series of nearby businesses were looted and a few officers had incurred minor injuries. By Tuesday morning, about 40 people had been arrested on a variety of charges, such as curfew violation and rioting.
According to Chief Gannon, officers pulled Wright over on Sunday afternoon for a traffic violation relating to expired registration tags, and things only escalated when the officers discovered there was a warrant for Wright’s arrest, and that a struggle only began when Daunte Wright attempted to step back into his car when he was being detained. Court records indicate that a judge issued a warrant for Daunte Wright earlier in the month after missing a court appearance. He was facing 2 misdemeanour charges for reportedly carrying a firearm without a permit, and had run from officers the previous Spring. However, according to an interview with both of his parents, Wright was in the car with his girlfriend, and was on the phone with his mother. He told his mother he was getting pulled over, and stated it was due to the air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror. While interacting with the officers, Wright was told to put down the phone, and was disconnected once a scuffle begun. His mother describes in an interview her fear as she called his cellphone another 5 or 6 times after losing touch, before his girlfriend answered and confirmed Daunte Wright was dead. As per the body cam footage shown to the public on Monday, the day after the shooting, one officer can be seen pointing a handgun at him and shouting “taser.” After the car pulls away, curse words are exclaimed, and the words “I just shot him” were spoken out loud to the other officers on scene. The car even travelled for another several blocks, striking another vehicle, and Wright was declared dead at the scene. While his girlfriend was hardly mentioned by the authorities, she was reported as only having sustained “minor injuries” from the incident.
On Tuesday April 13, 2021, Officer Potter resigned from her position with the police force via a brief letter addressed to Brooklyn Center’s Mayor, acting City Manager, and Police Chief (who resigned the same day). The letter read in its entirety: “I am tendering my resignation from the Brooklyn Center Police Department effectively immediately. I have loved every minute of being a police officer and serving this community to the best of my ability, but I believe it is in the best interest of the community, the department, and my fellow officers if I resign immediately.” The following day, Kim Potter was charged with second-degree manslaughter, which is described for cases where a person “consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.”
If the public is to be believe that this incident, this mistake, that took the life of a young Black man was in fact an accident, then the alternative is to believe that there are serious fundamental problems in the recruitment, training, and employment of police officers.
Police Training: Tasers & Firearms
With Officer Kim Potter explaining the cause of Daunte Wright’s homicide as an accidental drawing and firing of her firearm instead of her taser, there has been some debate on how easy it is for this mistake to occur. According to data collected by John Peters, a former police officer who served as an expert witness in a prominent “weapon confusion” case in a 2009 shooting in California, at least 18 officers have made similar errors to Kim Potter over the past 2 decades, some of which resulted in deadly outcomes. As well, only 2 of the 18 police officers were criminally charged after confusing a handgun for a taser. While the investigation is currently ongoing, the department has not yet been able to say what caused Potter to draw the wrong weapon. While civil rights advocates have had a hard time believing that Wright’s death was accidental, certain professionals do believe it, and have voiced their concerns regarding the design of tasers. Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University says that the design of tasers remains a major issue. “What we’re seeing is that in these incidents police officers often act in ways that are inconsistent with their law enforcement training,” Stinson said. “These devices look and feel like handguns, and that’s the core problem.” However, according to Axon’s co-Founder & CEO Rick Smith, the company has and continues to make sure there are easily identifiable differences between their tasers and firearms. “This includes building Taser energy weapons to look and feel different than a firearm: A Taser device has a different grip and feel and is lighter than a firearm; is offered in yellow to contrast a black firearm; a LED control panel lights up when the safety is taken off; and it is contained in a holster that is different and separate from the officer’s firearm.”
For many experts, the largest issue surrounding weapon confusion results from the inadequate training of officers with tasers. According to Peters, on average, a recruit will draw their firearm about 5000 times while in the police academy, but will only draw their taser 10 times at most. As a result, in stressful situations, an officer’s muscle memory can kick in and their automatic instinct is to go for their firearm. As well, according to Mike Leonesio, another former officer and former master taser instructor, states there is no research actually proving that the taser’s colour makes any difference in the heat of the moment. “In training I’ve done, often officers don’t even remember drawing their weapon or what it looked like,” said Leonesio.
While Axon (the creator of the taser) recommends officers carry their taser in a separate holster from their gun and on the officer’s non-dominant side, each policing agency has the option to develop their own policy. The Brooklyn Center police manual states that officers must position their tasers in a “reaction-side holster on the side opposite the duty weapon” and that officers need to be trained annually, with training including “performing reaction-hand draws or cross-draws to reduce the possibility of accidentally drawing and firing a firearm.” While new sources such as Reuters have reached out to the police department inquiring into Potter’s training history and the positioning of her device, but such questions have gone unanswered. As well, the manual does say an officer should give a verbal warning before using a taser, which can be seen evidently in the body cam footage from the incident, where Potter can be heard shouting “Taser, Taser, Taser!” before shooting Wright with her firearm, after which she exclaimed, “Holy shit, I just shot him.” What makes the situation all that much more concerning from a policing and training point of view, is that Kim Potter was actually training new officers when she made a fatal misjudgement.
Overall, there has been much discussion in 2020 and 2021 surrounding the validity and public need for established police forces after a series of videos have surfaced since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of which captured incidences of brutality towards citizens when police have responded to mental health or domestic disturbance calls. For instance, in April 2020 26-year-old D’Andre Campbell was fatally shot by police in Brampton, Ontario after calling the Peel Police Department for help during a mental health crisis. According to reports, 2 minutes after officers arrived Campbell had been fatally shot, twice in the chest, in front of his siblings. According to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) 2 officers used tasers on D’Andre, and another officer subsequently fired multiple gunshots, killing D’Andre onsite. Campbell’s family said police had come to the residence several times in the past, so someone would have had an idea of D’Andre’s ongoing battle with schizophrenia. The situation should not have been allowed to escalate as it did. As such, many North Americans believe its time for significant changes in policing, with one of the most significant being changes to how mental health calls are responded to. D’Andre Campbell sadly is not the first or the last even during the COVID-19 pandemic that has met a fatal end by the intervention of police during mental health calls.
The reformation, defunding, or dissolution of police forces continues to be discussed as more incidences with officers occur and are publicized. While many may argue for a long time about the reasoning behind officer Kim Potter’s use of her firearm over her taser, regardless of the reasoning, it is inexcusable. Whether she was another racist cop or truly made a mistake, it was an unacceptable situation for a 26-year veteran and training officer to be in. This also illustrates a significant need for more in-depth training with taser’s and non-lethal options for police officers. Making an error such as this should not be simple or acceptable to make.