On December 23, a jury in Minneapolis convicted Kimberly Potter, the cop who killed Daunte Wright last spring, on first- and second-degree manslaughter. Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence and other opponents of cop brutality in Minnesota welcomed the verdict—a still too rare glimpse of justice.
Wright, a 20-year-old African American man and father of a 2-year-old toddler, was shot and killed by Potter during an April 11 traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, about 10 miles north of Minneapolis. Potter was a 26-year veteran of the police force. She claimed the shooting was a mistake resulting from using her gun when she thought she had drawn her taser. She resigned from the police force after the fatal shooting, which occurred during the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis cop who brutally murdered George Floyd.
Courts rarely convict cops for any shootings, especially those claimed to be accidental. During Potter’s trial, jurors heard testimony from several current and former police officers—including two prosecutors put on the stand—who said their colleague had been justified in trying to use her taser and would have been justified in firing her gun. The cops claimed Wright tried to flee from Potter and two other officers attempting to arrest him after learning there was an outstanding warrant during a routine stop they initiated because Wright had an air freshener hanging from his rear-view mirror.
At trial, the defense argued Potter’s action did not rise to the level of a crime because her use of the taser was “reasonable” and she “didn’t know she had a gun.”
Prosecutors conceded that the shooting was an accident. But they argued that Potter’s fatal error was the result of such recklessness and negligence that she should be found guilty and imprisoned.
After 27 hours of deliberations over three days, the jury sided with the prosecution. Potter now faces up to 15 years behind bars.
Some commentators rushed to proclaim that the verdict registered a shift in bringing guilty cops to justice, coming after Chauvin’s conviction earlier this year. That case sparked a mass explosion of protest against police violence and racism in the summer of 2020.
“We may be watching the shift,” attorney A.L. Brown, told the Minneapolis StarTribune. “This may be the age of accountability,” he added. “We are finally in the days of Floyd,” said CNN legal analyst Mark O’Mara, referring to the 2020 protests following George Floyd’s murder by the police. “We are without question holding cops more responsible for their actions. They do not get a free pass.”
The evidence, however, does not support such conclusions.
Despite the two high-profile convictions in Minneapolis, “a review of the data a year and a half after America’s summer of protest shows that accountability for officers who kill remains elusive and that the sheer numbers of people killed in encounters with police have remained steady at an alarming level,” reported an article in the December 24 New York Times.
Since Floyd’s murder in May 2020, “1,646 people have been killed by the police, or about three people per day on average, according to Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit that tracks people killed by the police,” the Times said. “Although murder or manslaughter charges against officers have increased this year, criminal charges, much less convictions, remain exceptionally rare.”
According to data provided by Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who tracks police criminal charges and convictions, “21 officers this year have been charged with murder or manslaughter for an on-duty shooting—although five of the officers charged are for the same encounter, the killing in November 2020 of a 15-year-old boy who was a suspect in an armed robbery,” the Times noted. This is an increase from the 16 cops charged in 2020, and the highest number since Stinson’s team began compiling the data in 2005. But it remains tiny compared to the roughly 1,100 people the police kill annually.
The data also confirm the racist bias in police violence. African Americans are still two and a half to three times as likely as white people to be killed by a cop, according to Mapping Police Violence.
In addition, there are many other high-profile cases of police violence and racism, in which no cops have been held accountable. These include the 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor, an African American 26-year-old emergency room technician, shot and killed in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, by police officers who broke down her door in a midnight raid to serve a no-knock search warrant on the wrong house. Rayshard Brooks, a Black man was killed by a cop in Atlanta, Georgia, in a Wendy’s parking lot less than a month after Floyd’s murder. Brooks’ killing, like Floyd’s, was captured on bystander video and drew protests but no charges have been filed and the investigation has stalled for 18 months.
As powerful as the 2020 explosion of protest was, it did not lead to a sustained social movement that could continue to spotlight cop violence and demand prosecution of killer cops. That wave of protests subsided, largely due to the Democratic Party using its wealth and clout to steer protesters to re-focus their energy on electing Democrats to public office in November 2020 and relying on lobbying liberal politicians since then. One outcome is that cop violence has been unfaltering, mass protests have faded, and most guilty cops keep on getting “a free pass.”
Following the murder of Daunte Wright, protests did break out in Minnesota and opponents of cop violence there did continue to demand justice. We join Wright’s family and supporters in celebrating the verdict that delivered some accountability. As Katie Bryant, Daunte’s mother, told supporters outside the courtroom, cops are now more likely to think twice before pulling their gun instead of their taser. “And we made this happen, you made this happen, Daunte Wright made this happen.”