Police Chief Claims Cop Who Killed Minnesota Black Man Accidentally Fired Gun Instead of Taser

·9 min read
Wright Family/Handout
Wright Family/Handout

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn.—The officer who killed a young Black man during a traffic stop outside Minneapolis on Sunday accidentally fired her gun instead of a Taser during the arrest, the Brooklyn Center police chief said Monday afternoon.

“This was an accidental discharge that resulted in the tragic death of Mr. [Daunte] Wright,” Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said during a Monday press conference where body-camera footage of the shooting was released. He noted that the “very senior officer” involved shouted “Taser, Taser!” during the arrest, apparently unaware that she’d pulled out her handgun when she fired the single shot that killed the 20-year-old man.

Wright’s death set off a string of violent protests amid tensions over the Derek Chauvin murder trial. Hours after the shooting, hundreds of residents surrounded the police headquarters and clashed with police, who responded with tear gas and flashbangs reminiscent of last summer’s protests after the police death of George Floyd.

In the body-camera footage played during the Monday press conference, two officers can be seen approaching Wright’s white car. One officer then pulls the 20-year-old out of the vehicle and turns him around, attempting to handcuff him against the car as Wright tries to get back inside.

During the chaotic struggle, Potter pulls out a gun and shoots Wright as he’s sitting in the driver’s seat. The officer can be heard yelling “Taser, Taser!” during the footage, before saying, “Holy shit, I shot him.”

Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott said Monday that he fully supports the termination of Potter—a demand made repeatedly by activists at the press briefing.

“All of the world is watching our community. We continue to be distressed as we go through the Derek Chauvin trial,” Elliot said. “We will get to the bottom of this.

The Brooklyn Center Police Department said the incident occurred shortly before 2 p.m. after officers initiated a stop for a traffic violation. Wright’s mother, Katie Wright, said that during the stop, her son called her to tell her he had been pulled over because an air freshener was allegedly hanging in his rear-view mirror—which is an offense in Minnesota.

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“He called me at about 1:30. He said he was getting pulled over by the police. And I said ‘Why you getting pulled over?’ And he said they pulled him over because he had air fresheners hanging from his rear-view mirror. I said, ‘OK, take them down,’” Wright said, adding that she could hear a scuffle break out and someone yelling, “Daunte, don’t run.” When she called back, her son was dead. She spent much of Sunday afternoon at the scene of the fatal shooting, pleading with officers to remove the body of her son from the pavement.

Gannon said Monday that Wright was initially stopped after officers saw his car’s tabs were expired. After officers ran his name, they found an outstanding gross misdemeanor warrant.

As they tried to take him into custody, cops said Wright re-entered his car—and an officer discharged a weapon.

Wright then drove several blocks before “striking another vehicle,” police said in a press release. “Officers in pursuit and responding medical personnel attempting life-saving measures, but the person died at the scene.”

“As you can hear, the officer while struggling with Mr. Wright shouts ‘Taser, Taser’ several times. That’s part of the officer’s training, prior to drawing a Taser, which is a less-lethal device, that is done to make her partners aware that a Taser—during this—the officer drew their handgun instead of their taser,” Gannon said Monday. “As I watch the video and listen to the officer’s commands it is my belief that the officer had the intention to deploy their taser but instead shot Mr. Wright with a single bullet.”

Gannon urged the community to be patient and allow an investigation into the incident to be completed.

“I believe Mr. Wright deserves this, as do all involved. The officer is currently on administrative leave,” he said, noting that a female passenger who was in the car was injured during the crash and transported to another hospital.

Wright also had previous run-ins with law enforcement. According to court records, he was charged with a petty misdemeanor twice in August 2019—once for selling marijuana and another for disorderly conduct. In February, however, Wright was charged with aggravated robbery. He was released conditionally, according to jail records, and was due to appear in court this summer.

The one outstanding warrant for Wright's arrest, Hennepin County authorities confirmed, was issued after the young man failed to appear for a hearing on April 2. The court date was to deal with a gross misdemeanor charge dating to last summer, when Wright allegedly got caught carrying a pistol without a permit and fled from a peace officer.

Arthur Martinez, a public defender who represented Wright, said he believed his client had never received notice of the scheduled appearance—and said that the court had not informed him either.

“He obviously didn’t get it, and no one notified me, and a date came up for April 2nd for 2:30 in the afternoon, and him not knowing about it, didn’t show up, and there was a warrant issued for his arrest,” said Martinez, who shared an image of the warrant with The Daily Beast that shows that the judge set bail at a $3,000 bond or $500 in cash.

“That’s how not serious this is: it’s a $500 bail. This wasn’t a $50,000 bail. This isn’t something where he allegedly did something violent to someone,” he said. “It’s not even a felony. It’s a gross misdemeanor. To tase or shoot somebody is insane.”

The Hennepin County District Court maintained it sent a notice of the hearing to Wright's most recent address on file in March, and that it was never returned as undeliverable. A spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether the court had contacted Martinez.

Despite Wright’s family pleading for calm, protests broke out on Sunday evening, continuing into the early hours of Monday. By nightfall, police fired rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets, and flashbangs at around 500 protesters who had gathered near the Brooklyn Center police headquarters and defaced the signage. Brooklyn Center also issued a 6 a.m. curfew in an attempt to curtail the violence, but that effort was largely unsuccessful after many of the protesters retreated into nearby residential areas, according to the Star Tribune.

Lindsey Cherek Waller, a local artist who attended the protests, filmed a cloud of tear gas that billowed into nearby apartments on Sunday night, while an onlooker shouted to police that children lived in those buildings.

“They started shooting off rubber bullets and letting tear gas go,” shortly after 9 p.m., Waller told The Daily Beast, adding that they saw a young woman evacuate one building with her children. “We kept yelling that there were kids that live in apartment buildings across the street. It just continued. It was devastating.”

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Around midnight, National Guard troops tried to secure the area as looters stormed a nearby Walmart store. Local media reports that many nearby businesses, including a Foot Locker and New York clothing store, were damaged in the ensuing violence.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, alongside State Patrol and Hennepin County officers, said early Monday that the Guard presence would remain “robust” for the next “two or three days.”

The shooting was brought up Monday before court began in the murder trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, who held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes before he died during a May 2020 arrest over a counterfeit bill. Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s defense attorney, requested to sequester the 12-person jury, stating that Sunday’s shooting could have hindered their ability to make an impartial decision about his client’s fate.

Judge Peter Cahill, however, denied the motion after highlighting that while there is “civil unrest and maybe some of the jurors did hear about it,” the cases are unrelated and there has been no evidence of jury-tampering.

Brooklyn Center Community Schools have pivoted to remote learning on Monday “out of an abundance of caution,” Superintendent Carly Baker wrote on the school’s website. “I haven’t entirely processed the tragedy that took place in our community and I’m prioritizing the safety and well-being of our students, families, staff members, and community members,” he added.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota on Monday demanded an “immediate, transparent and independent investigation by an outside agency.” The group also called that the names of the officers be released.

Kelly O’Brien, a 28-year-old adult education teacher, was among a group of Minneapolis residents who gathered outside Brooklyn Park after Sunday night’s unrest.

“It’s just unfair to kill a kid. He’s a kid, a young man. It’s just a challenge,” she said, adding that she was in the area to bring water to protesters. “From George Floyd to now, it’s exhausting. My friends, I’m so worried about my students, my community.”

Milleeshay Smith, a 30-year-old St. Paul resident protesting at Minneapolis’ George Floyd Square, told The Daily Beast that the police department offered an inadequate explanation for what happened.

“I want to know the difference between grabbing and shooting a gun and grabbing and shooting a taser. They are withholding information so they can justify their actions,” Smith said.

For Wright’s family, the initial shock of losing the 20-year-old, whom they describe as a new father who had a whole life ahead of him,” is still overwhelming. The family has retained civil-rights attorney Ben Crump, who has previously represented the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

“We just want people to know Daunte was a good kid,” the family said in a statement. “He loved being a father to Daunte Jr.”

“Daunte had a smile to make anyone’s heart melt. He was definitely a jokester, he loved to joke with people, especially his brothers and sisters,” the family added. “He did not deserve this,” the family added.

- Kelly Weill contributed to this report.

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