I must confess I am conflicted about the sentence handed down in the Kim Potter shooting of Daunte Wright. I understand Wright’s family’s outrage. The nationally publicized incident happened in Brooklyn Center, MN, a short distance away from where Derek Chauvin brutally executed George Floyd.
It happened during a traffic stop; perhaps young Wright was pulled over for driving while black. The pretense for the stop was same old, same old, an air freshener, hanging from his rearview mirror. Wright’s family and other activists cry bull#@%#; this was a racially motivated stop.
Once the stop occurs, the officers discover that Wright has a warrant for a weapons possession charge. The cops decide to arrest the young man and he attempts to flee and allude the police. Video evidence clearly demonstrates that Potter, a white female cop, warns him (several times) that he will be tasered if he doesn’t stop, but he starts to pull away and she fires the gun in her hand (she claims she thought it was a taser) and shoots the young man in the chest, killing him.
I get it. I get the outrage. To this young man’s family, this seems to be yet another in a long line of ‘cop on black shootings,’ much like the one depicted in my novel, Betrayal in Black. Race had to be the motive, right? Well . . . hold on . . . Potter has no record, a spotless law enforcement career, and tremendous support from her community. She has apologized, multiple times, including at her sentencing hearing, for her role in the tragedy. She is not a danger to society, because her law enforcement career is over.
Ben Crump, who has built a multi-million dollar legal career representing black citizens shot by white police officers, argues that the shooting represents an example of America’s legal system in “black and white.” I understand where he’s coming from—I literally wrote the book on the issue, offering common sense solutions to the long-standing problem of racial bias in policing.
Would the officers involved have pulled Wright over for a two-bit air freshener offense if he was white? Perhaps not. But that question does not go far enough. For me, the more important question is if Wright behaved himself throughout the stop, if he had obeyed commands and not tried to flee and allude, would he be alive today? Furthermore, if Wright was a law-abiding citizen—no arrest warrant for weapons charges—would the stop have been handled differently?
Those seeking to throw the book at Potter have completely ignored Daunte Wright’s behavior, both before and during the stop. Granted, we are innocent until proven guilty in this country, and at the time of his death, Daunte Wright was innocent of the weapons charge. But a judge had issued a warrant for his arrest on these charges, and Potter was duty bound to attempt to enforce the warrant. Her attempt to do so is on Wright, not on Potter.
The next step to analyze is Potter’s claim that she meant to taser, not shoot, Daunte Wright. She argues that his death was an unfortunate accident. Expert testimony at the trial indicated that Potter’s gun holster had a snap and her taser holster had a lever. The black gun is twice as heavy as the yellow taser. The two weapons have different grips, trigger, and safety mechanisms. Potter failed to perform a function test on the Taser at the start of her shift, a recommended but not required action.
I suspect that these weight and mechanical differences were used to justify Potter’s conviction. The jury convicted her, I believe, on this evidence. Am I shocked that the judge sentenced her based on the same evidence? No, I am not.
Unlike the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, this is not some half-baked citizens’ arrest of a completely innocent black person. To my knowledge, Kim Potter has no past history of racial bias—we will see no federal hate crime trial like we now see in the Arbery case. The judge, Regina Chu, said that the evidence is ‘undisputed’ (I’m not sure I agree, but I wasn’t the judge and I didn’t hear all the evidence) that Potter intended to use her Taser and not her firearm. Once the judge reached that conclusion, the reduced sentence was a foregone conclusion.
So, no, I am not shocked that the sentence was at least five years shorter than recommended guidelines. Have white people been treated better by the criminal justice system than black people? Undoubtedly so. However, is it truly surprising that this judge would demonstrate a high regard for the public service of a police officer vis-à-vis a suspect who failed to cooperate?
I understand that this sentence doesn’t “feel right.” I understand that people of color have been sentenced to more years for less harmful offenses. A twenty-year old young man is dead. His crime, even if he was guilty, did not deserve the death sentence, which, effectively, was handed down in this case.
Would the sentence be the same if the cop was black and the suspect white? History suggests otherwise. I understand why the black community sees this sentence as yet another example of the justice system’s bias in black and white. The bottom line? A judge showed mercy to a remorseful Kim Potter. I would be okay with that if all judges viewed policing, criminal behavior, suspect and victims’ rights without regard to race.
Do you think that will ever happen?
Mark M. Bello is an attorney and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Legal Thriller Series, ripped-from-the headlines, realistic fiction that speak truth to power and champion the rights of citizens in our justice system. These novels, dedicated to the social justice movement, are not only enjoyable, they educate, spark discussion and inspire readers to action. For more information, please visit www.markmbello.com. Mark also hosts the Justice Counts podcast with Not Fake News editor & publisher Bob Gatty, presenting bi-weekly interviews focused on social justice.