Kim Potter Deserved Probation, Not Prison

The governor of Colorado recently bowed to a petition signed by several million Americans calling for clemency for a driver convicted of reckless driving  in the tragic deaths of several people. In Minnesota, police officer Kim Potter was convicted of first degree manslaughter when she mistakenly drew her gun instead of her Taser and shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old black man. Potter has now been sentence to two years in prison in a case that should have resulted in her acquittal. Had the victim’s skin been white, she would never have been tried. Where is the clemency petition for Potter. Millions would sign it.

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr

There is no doubt that Potter made a mistake when she drew her gun instead of the Taser. The question is whether an inadvertent mistake in the chaos of the moment warrants a prison sentence. The answer should have been no, but the jury, apparently with some members initially reluctant to vote for guilt, eventually reached an unbelievable unanimous conclusion of guilty. A unanimous acquittal might have been impossible. That unanimous guilty verdict should also have been out of reach,

The issue, from the standpoint of the prosecution, was that an officer with over two decades of experience with that department, with annual training designed to prevent such mistakes, had committed an offense that demanded criminal punishment. How could a long-time professional officer, trained and re-trained in handling of a gun in such situations, make such a mistake?

The mistake was made, however, despite the training, Chalk it up to the passion of the moment, as the suspect seemed to be evading arrest and attempting to leave.  Potter’s defense team argued that the situation justified lethal action – even though Potter did not intend to use deadly force. She was shouting “Taser. Taser. Taser.” as she drew her gun and shot. Her reaction to what she had done certainly conveyed the anguish of someone who instantly realized the mistake she had made,

A guilty verdict was not called for. She had resigned from the force shortly after the shooting, realizing what she had done was not in keeping with the professionalism expected of an officer. Had she not resigned, dismissal would have been justified. And this was not likely to be one of those not so rare cases where the dismissed officer sues the department and regains his or her job plus more compensation than the family of the shooting victim received.

 Had Potter’s victim been white, the Minnesota jury might well have reached an entirely different verdict. It would have been easier for jurors to acquit Potter if they knew the state would not again be in turmoil over a white cop killing a black suspect. White lives don’t seem to matter enough to bring protesters into the streets when a cop unnecessarily kills one. There might be a flood of letters to the editor, but no demonstrations in the streets.

Protests over white deaths at the hands of police are extremely rare. That part of our citizenry still show the police their respect, a quality inbred from grade school on. A little white kid knows that if he is lost he needs to find a cop to reunite him with his family. A white driver may grumble over a questionable traffic ticket, but he isn’t likely to demonstrate against police brutality. That loyalty to the police was evident in that recent Minneapolis election in which  voters refused to dismantle the police department.

In sentencing Potter, Judge Regina Chu said this was the toughest case she has had in her twenty years on the bench. At one point, Judge Chu wiped away tears as she pronounced the sentence, which was far less than the state’s suggested sentence in such verdicts. The family of Wright expressed outrage at the two year sentence. Minneapolis should prepare for more mob demonstrations in the city’s streets.

Over four million Americans have signed that petition urging clemency for the truck driver whose accident killed four innocent people. Where is the clemency petition for Potter?

Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.