Wednesday, June 16, 2021

in-focus

Officer who shot Daunte Wright resigns, as does Brooklyn Center police chief


BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. - The police officer who fatally shot an unarmed Black man in a Minneapolis suburb Sunday has resigned, as has the police chief, the latest shake-up in a town reeling from the shooting.

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The resignations did little to quell the calls for justice for Daunte Wright, 20, who was shot during a traffic stop. On Tuesday, Wright's family called for the officer who shot Wright to be charged with murder. "Prosecute them, like they would prosecute us," Nyesha Wright, the victim's aunt, said at a news conference. "We want the highest justice."

Her comments came amid a chaotic 24 hours in Brooklyn Center. On Monday night, the City Council fired the city manager and transferred control of the police department to the mayor. Late Tuesday morning, Kimberly Potter, the veteran officer who fatally shot Wright, resigned.

Moments later, Mayor Mike Elliott announced that Police Chief Tim Gannon had resigned as well.

The developments come as a major police trial is playing out 10 miles from where Wright was shot. Closing arguments in the trial of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin are expected to start next week, fueling concerns from state and local officials that Wright's shooting will add to an already tense atmosphere.

"This couldn't have happened at a worse time," Elliott previously said following Wright's shooting. "We are collectively devastated."

Outside the Hennepin County Court House in downtown Minneapolis on Tuesday, Wright's family spoke to the media for more than an hour as the news of Potter's resignation began to circulate. During the news conference, family members wept and hugged as Wright's 2-year-old son cried.

Jeffrey Storms, a Wright family attorney, criticized the police's characterization of Potter's actions as an accident. "An accident is knocking over a glass of milk, it's not an accident to take your gun out of your holster," Storms said. "Don't tell us it's an accident because it undermines the tragic loss of life that this family has experienced."

The family gathered with members of George Floyd's family and with civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who now represents both families.

Shortly before they appeared before the media, Courtney Ross, Floyd's girlfriend who testified in Chauvin's murder trial last week, walked over to console Wright's mother, Katie.

"Say his name," they chanted, in between tears. "Daunte Wright."

During Tuesday's news conference, Katie Wright recounted her final phone call with her son, in which he called to say he had been stopped by police over an air freshener in his car and was being asked about insurance.

Katie Wright instructed her son to take down the dangling air freshener and offered to speak to police to provide the insurance information. She then heard officers return and tell Daunte to get out of the car.

"Am I in trouble?" she heard her son ask. She said the officers told her they would explain when he got out of the car. "I heard him get out of the car, and I could hear the officers scruffling with him," she said. "Then I heard the police officer ask him to hang up the phone."

Katie Wright said she didn't know what had happened until Daunte's girlfriend, who had been in the car with him, told her he had been shot.

Police body camera footage released Monday showed two male officers approach either side of Wright's Buick before he was placed against the car and searched. A third officer, later identified as Potter, approaches as one of the male officers tries to handcuff Wright as he struggles to get back into the car.

Potter is heard off camera threatening to Taser Wright twice before shouting "Taser! Taser! Taser!" and firing what was actually a gun. Potter is then heard swearing and saying, "I just shot him." Wright, who drove several blocks before crashing, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Crump said Minneapolis-area police officers should use more discretion in enforcing traffic violations, and questioned how a veteran officer could fail to differentiate the size and weight of a her gun versus her Taser.

At least 40 people were arrested at protests over Wright's killing on Sunday and Monday night, despite a four-county 7 p.m. curfew enacted by Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat.

After heavily armed law enforcement used aggressive crowd dispersal measures such as flash-bang grenades and chemical irritants on protesters Sunday night, the Brooklyn County City Council passed a resolution limiting the techniques their police department was authorized to use against crowds. Several businesses sustained damage both nights.

Walz declined to renew the countywide curfews, though mayors in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Maple Grove and Brooklyn Center ordered local curfews for Tuesday night.

Elliott and interim police Chief Tony Gruenig fielded heated questions over the lack of Black officers in the roughly 50-person department. They also acknowledged that none of the current officers who police the streets of Brooklyn Center live in the city itself.

Residents also raised questions about alleged ties between police unions and the Washington County Attorneys Office, which is handling charging decisions in Potter's case, instead of the Hennepin County Attorneys Office.

The shooting took place in Hennepin County, but Mike Freeman, the county attorney there, sent the case to Washington County Attorney Pete Orput's office under a policy initiated in the wake of Floyd's killing meant to avoid the appearance of conflicts by having prosecutors review police shootings from other jurisdictions.

Elliott pledged to ask Walz to reassign Potter's case to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a Democrat.

Under state law, a case can only be reassigned at request of the governor or a county attorney, said former Minnesota attorney general Lori Swanson, Ellison's predecessor. "When communities ask, it certainly has influence, but legally, a mayor or local unit of government doesn't have the authority to make it happen," Swanson said.

Reassigning cases is rare and typically happens when rural counties that are unaccustomed to prosecuting murder cases require assistance, she said. The Chauvin trial, which was initiated by the Hennepin County prosecutor before moving to Ellison's office, is a notable exception.

Orput said Tuesday that he hoped to make a charging decision and announcement in Potter's case on Wednesday.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is also investigating the matter, though their decision will no longer impact Potter's employment following her voluntary resignation.

In her Tuesday resignation letter, Potter wrote she had "loved every minute of being a police officer and serving this community to the best of my ability." Her resignation, she said, was in the best interest of the community, the police department and her fellow officers.

Potter's resignation raised concerns among residents at City Hall on Tuesday that herleaving before she could be terminated was a protective move to keep her pension and law enforcement certification, which would enable her to potentially work on a different police force.

Members of the community urged Elliott to reject Potter's resignation to keep open the potential for her to be formally terminated. It was unclear if the mayor's formal acceptance of an officer's resignation impacts its ultimate efficacy.

Neither Potter nor Gannon could immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

Alfreda Daniels Juasemai, a community organizer who works with a coalition of local groups in Brooklyn Center including a nonprofit was among the those who said it was critical that officers like Potter not be allowed to resign so they could rejoin a different department.

"If a police officer who worked in a department for 26 years cannot tell the difference between a Taser and a gun, and she kills somebody - and then she's going to resign and go to another police department and work there? She's a danger to any community she goes to," Juasemai said.

Published : April 14, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Kim Bellware, Tim Craig, Jared Goyette