In the past few weeks, two cases have sprung to the front of the news headlines. One was the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright by Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter. The other was the Justice Department’s decision not to charge the U.S. Capitol Police officer who fatally shot Ashli Babbitt during the riot at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6th.
One common thread, the sacrifice of truth and jurisprudence on the altar of political expediency, links these cases.
In the Daunte Wright case, the totality of the circumstances facing the officers—including Mr. Wright’s attempt to escape custody for an arrest on a warrant that involved the use of a firearm during a robbery—seems to be lost in the rage over his unfortunate and unnecessary death.
Had Mr. Wright not resisted, the circumstances would have been entirely different. Before I am castigated for blaming the victim, we all bear some responsibility for our own actions. For those who have never worn the badge or dealt with individuals with a history of violence—something the officers on that scene had every reason to suspect—it is easy to second guess and criticize.
Officer Potter made a grievous and inexcusable error. Mr. Wright and his family deserve our sympathy considering his death. But how this rises to a criminal case of Second-Degree Manslaughter is beyond me.
Minnesota statute 609.205 defines second-degree manslaughter as when a person kills another human being under these conditions
“Creating a risk that has been deemed unreasonable and consciously taking the chance of causing severe harm to another’s body or death to another human being. This risk is considered culpable negligence.”
Minnesota statute 609.205
The operative word here is consciously. The body cam audio supports Officer Potter’s own surprise at her fatally shooting Mr. Wright. Her “conscious” choice was to deploy non-deadly force with the taser. That she inadvertently, in the adrenaline fueled heat of the moment facing a potentially armed and known violent individual, selected the wrong weapon cannot possibly be construed as criminal by any dispassionate examination of the circumstances.
Clearly, there is negligence. Clearly, there is some culpability for what is known as “weapons confusion” in similar incidents. But to interpret her actions as unreasonable and consciously taking the chance of causing severe harm to another’s body or death to another human being is a stretch of prosecutorial discretion.
If ever there was a case underscoring the appropriateness of civil litigation—with its lower standard of proof—as opposed to criminal charges, this is it.
The only reasonable conclusion is that the Washington County District Attorney’s office is reacting to the incident’s politics rather than the facts. News organizations imply a racial bias in the incident by including the terms “white suburban officer” shoots “black” suspect. Yet, there has been no evidence of such discrimination.
Now I will be the first to agree that minorities face endemic and widespread racial disparities in their treatment by law enforcement, something this country refuses to address with any consistency or dedication. But that determination to change the climate of minority contact with law enforcement cannot come at the cost of sacrificing truth and adherence to the law.
Officer Potter resigned. She and the city she worked for will clearly face severe civil sanctions in a wrongful death suit, but prosecuting the former officer for the sake of the appearance of trying to change things is wrong.
In the press statement, the Washington County Assistant Criminal Division Chief, Imran Ali, said,
“Certain occupations carry an immense responsibility, and none more so than a sworn police officer. With that responsibility comes a great deal of discretion and accountability. We will vigorously prosecute this case and intend to prove that Officer Potter abrogated her responsibility to protect the public when she used her firearm rather than her taser. Her action caused the unlawful killing of Mr. Wright, and she must be held accountable. County Attorney Peter Orput and I met with the family, expressed our deepest sympathies and assured them we would spare no resources in seeking justice for Mr. Wright.”
Mr. Ali would do well to listen to his own words, “Certain occupations carry an immense responsibility,” and understand they apply to his position as much as any police officer. His choice to prosecute should be based on law and evidence, not the politics of the moment.
Such political pandering even spills over into cases where the officer(s) acted within the law. The United States Justice Department played to the political climate and shirked their responsibility of seeking the truth.
In their decision involving the U.S. Capitol Police officer who fatally shot Ashli Babbitt during the riot at the U.S. Capitol building, they chose weasel words to mitigate the decision, essentially leaving the officer convicted in the press because of “lack of evidence.”
Here’s what they said in the decision,
“Officials examined video footage posted on social media, statements from the officer involved and other officers and witnesses to the events, physical evidence from the scene of the shooting, and the results of an autopsy… based on that investigation, officials determined that there is insufficient evidence to support a criminal prosecution.”
They described the circumstances.
“Members of the mob attempted to break through the doors by striking them and breaking the glass with their hands, flagpoles, helmets, and other objects. Eventually, the three USCP officers positioned outside the doors were forced to evacuate. As members of the mob continued to strike the glass doors, Ms. Babbitt attempted to climb through one of the doors where glass was broken out,”
Yet, despite this documented evidence of a real threat to the badly outnumbered Capitol Police officers’ lives and safety, they choose not to say it was a justified shooting, just one they couldn’t prosecute.
They argued that in federal court they would fail because,
“evidence that an officer acted out of fear, mistake, panic, misperception, negligence, or even poor judgment cannot establish the high level of intent required.”
Once again, abdicating their responsibility for the sake of political expediency.
The use of deadly force by the police should always be the last resort. Thoroughly investigating such incidents and charging officers who act criminally in their conduct must play a crucial part in the Justice Department’s responsibilities.
Equally important is the decisions about charging officers involved in incidents where an individual is killed need to be based on evidence and the law, not the moment’s politics.
In Officer Potter’s case, should the evidence show a racial bias or actual criminal action in her decision to use force, then charge her appropriately. But what it would appear we have here is a rush to judgment for the sake of appearances.
Every officer-involved shooting where a life is taken is regrettable, but they are not all criminal or racially motivated.
In the case of the U.S. Capitol officer, the Justice Department should have been willing to stand behind the officer’s actions, not kowtow to political pandering.
In both these cases—call it blaming the victim if you like—but if Mr. Wright hadn’t committed the offense resulting in the warrant and complied with the officers or if Ms. Babbitt hadn’t joined in the violent mob on January 6th, both of them would be alive today.
If we will sacrifice truth, no matter how lofty the goal, we will accomplish nothing.