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Kim Potter describes officers' struggle with Daunte Wright before she shot him

Former Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter testifies in court on Friday in Minneapolis. Potter is charged with first and second-degree manslaughter in the April 11 shooting death of Daunte Wright.
Court TV, via AP, Pool
Former Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter testifies in court on Friday in Minneapolis. Potter is charged with first and second-degree manslaughter in the April 11 shooting death of Daunte Wright.

Updated December 17, 2021 at 4:24 PM ET

Kim Potter, the former Minnesota police officer who authorities said meant to draw her Taser instead of her handgun when she fatally shot Daunte Wright, on Friday became the final witness to take the stand in her manslaughter trial.

Potter sobbed at several points in her testimony as she recalled and watched body camera footage of the fatal traffic stop on April 11 and said she was "sorry it happened."

But she also testified that the discovery of a warrant for Wright's arrest stemming from a gun charge caused officers to be concerned that he may have been carrying a gun.

And she said that she believed Wright was trying to flee the arrest. Defense lawyers have argued that fleeing would have endangered the life of a fellow officer, who was leaning in through the passenger side door in an attempt to control the car's gearshift.

"We were struggling. We were trying to keep him from driving away. It just went chaotic," she said.

Potter faces two counts: first-degree manslaughter and second-degree manslaughter. To be found guilty, the jury must agree that Potter was acting recklessly or with "culpable negligence."

Over a week and a half of testimony, prosecutors have argued that Potter had been thoroughly trained in the use of her handgun and her Taser — including the possibility of confusing the two — and that the use of a Taser in that situation was inappropriate.

But defense lawyers, led by attorney Earl Gray, have countered that Potter's use of force was reasonable given her concern for the safety of her fellow officer, Sgt. Mychal Johnson, and that the shooting death of Wright was a "an accident."

Both sides have now rested their case. Closing arguments are expected Monday, and a verdict is expected to follow soon after.

Screen grab of police body cam video shown in court at Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. shows former police officer Kim Potter after a traffic stop in which Daunte Wright was shot.
/ AP
A screen grab of police body cam video shown in court at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis shows former police officer Kim Potter after a traffic stop in which Daunte Wright was shot.

How the encounter unfolded

The encounter between Potter and Wright took place on the afternoon of April 11, 2021, in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center. Potter, a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center Police Department, was training a new officer, Anthony Luckey, that day.

Together, they pulled over Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was driving with his girlfriend in a white Buick sedan. They had noticed him improperly using a blinker, Potter said, and that he had an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror – an infraction in Minnesota – and expired registration tabs on his license plate.

Potter testified that she would "most likely not" have pulled over Wright had she not been training a new officer.

"An air freshener to me is just an equipment violation. And during the COVID times, the high COVID times, the Department of Motor Vehicles was so offline that people weren't getting tabs, and we were advised not to try to enforce a lot of those things because the tabs were just not in circulation," she said.

The initial portion of the traffic stop was uneventful, Potter said. But then she and Luckey returned to the squad car to run his license, she said, where they discovered that Wright had a warrant out for his arrest stemming from a gun charge.

That, Potter testified Friday, made the officers concerned there might be a gun in the car. "A weapons violation warrant would be cause for care and concern," she said.

Wright was not armed that day, a fact prosecutor Erin Eldridge returned to during cross-examination.

"You never saw a weapon on Mr. Wright, did you?" Eldridge asked. "He never threw a punch, right? Never kicked anyone?" Potter repeatedly answered "no."

During the warrant search, Luckey called for backup, and a third Brooklyn Center officer, Sgt. Mychal Johnson, joined the pair to help make the arrest.

The entire sequence was filmed by the officers' body-worn cameras and the dash camera in the squad car. The videos have been shown at trial.

Wright exited the car freely, but when Luckey attempted to handcuff him, Wright pulled his arm away and sat back down in the driver's seat.

In the chaotic seconds that followed, the videos show Luckey struggled with Wright as Johnson leaned in through the passenger side door in an attempt to prevent Wright from driving away.

Johnson's position at that moment — with nearly his entire body inside the open passenger door — is central to the case made by defense lawyers. They have argued that deadly force was reasonable because Wright's attempt to flee would have put Johnson's life in danger.

Potter testified that as she watched Wright and Johnson wrestle for control over the gearshift, Johnson "had a look of fear in his face."

As she watched Wright and Johnson wrestle for control over the gearshift, Potter said Johnson "had a look of fear in his face."

"It was like nothing I'd seen before," she testified.

The video footage shows that Potter drew her handgun and yelled, "I'm gonna tase you!"

Five seconds later, she yelled "Taser! Taser! Taser!" and the two other officers jumped back from the car, the dashcam footage shows.

Potter fired a single fatal shot into the side of Wright's chest. His car sped away, leaving the three officers standing behind. Potter gasped and said, "I just shot him," the videos show.

Under cross-examination, Potter says she's "sorry it happened"

During cross-examination, Eldridge returned to that moment. "As a police officer, you have the duty to render aid and communicate information to other officers," she said. "And it's part of your job to assist those who are hurt or injured."

But Potter "didn't do any of those things" that day, Eldridge said, as Potter sobbed.

"I'm sorry it happened," Potter said.

"Ms. Potter, from your reaction today, and from your reaction on your video — you didn't plan to use deadly force that day, did you?" Eldridge said.

"No," she said.

"You didn't want to use deadly force, did you?" Eldridge said.

"No," she said again.

"Because you knew that deadly force was unreasonable and unwarranted in these circumstances?" Eldridge said.

"I didn't want to hurt anybody," Potter said, still crying.

Potter had decades of police experience

During questioning by her defense attorney, Earl Gray, Potter described her long background in policing and public safety. As a junior high school student, she volunteered as a school patrol officer, she said, and joined a youth police department program in high school. During college, she interned at a local police department.

She was hired by the Brooklyn Center department in February 1995. In the 26 years that followed, Potter took part in "thousands of hours" of training, including firearm and Taser trainings, and herself helped to train new officers.

During cross-examination, Eldridge questioned Potter on the differences between her handgun, a Glock pistol, and her Taser 7 – in color, weight, the electronic features or lack thereof, and how the weapons were holstered on her duty belt.

Prosecutors have argued that Potter should have realized she had drawn her handgun instead of her Taser. Five seconds elapsed between when Potter drew her gun and when she fired it.

A variety of use-of-force experts and Brooklyn Center police officers testified during the trial, which began last week.

At times, witnesses have offered opposite opinions about whether a use of deadly force was appropriate or whether firing a Taser at the driver of a vehicle would have endangered the officers even more.

Perhaps most helpful to Potter's case was testimony from Tim Gannon, the former Brooklyn Center police chief who was fired in the days after the shooting.

Gannon, who testified Thursday, said he believed that deadly force was reasonable in Potter's situation and that he "saw no violation" of "policy, procedure or law" in Potter's actions.

The shooting death of Wright, which took place as the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin over the death of George Floyd was taking place in nearby Minneapolis, set off days of chaotic protests in Brooklyn Center.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.

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