OP-ED: Cops who shoot unarmed Black people think everything is a gun. Except their own gun

Leonard Greene
New York Daily News (TNS)
Kimberly A. Potter was booked into the Hennepin County jail on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (Hennepin County Sheriff's Office/TNS)

So, I’m reading about the cop who shot Daunte Wright in Minnesota on Sunday and the police chief who defended her deadly mistake, and I’m wondering if there has ever been a time in the history of law enforcement when an officer grabbed his Taser by accident when he meant to pull his gun.

Kim Potter’s weapon was still warm when stories started appearing online about all the other cops across the country who had apparently made the same mistake as Potter and fired the kill gun instead of the stun gun.

White transit cop Johannes Mehserle said he pulled out the wrong weapon in 2009 when he fatally shot a 22-year-old Black man, Oscar Grant III, on the platform of a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland.

More:Police officer facing trial in shooting at Spring Grove bank

More:Superior Court: DA can't appeal York judge's ruling in case of cop charged with assault

More:Former Minnesota cop charged in shooting of Black motorist

More:Police, protesters clash as chief says officer meant to use Taser, not gun

In 2015, a white volunteer sheriff’s deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, fatally shot a Black man, Eric Harris, 44, during an undercover operation. The deputy, Robert Bates, claimed he confused his personal Smith & Wesson revolver with a Taser, even though officials later said the stun gun wasn’t even on his hip at the time.

Neither of those shooters spent more than two years in jail for their “mistakes.”

But if such confusion is so common — like reaching for my house keys when I meant to get my car keys or sprinkling some sugar in the recipe when I meant to use the salt — then it stands to reason that a cop just one time would have shot his Taser when he meant to fire his gun.

Any officer who would ever confess to such a blunder would be a laughingstock. Of course, any officer who would ever commit such a blunder would likely be dead.

Yet we are expected to believe that Potter, a veteran police officer with 26 years of experience, pulled out the wrong weapon when Wright, 20, got back in his car during a traffic stop for expired tags.

" Oh s--t, I just shot him,” Potter said, as surprised as anyone.

But what exactly did she expect to happen when she pointed a loaded gun at a man and pulled the trigger?

“This was no accident,” Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for Wright’s family, said in a statement on Wednesday. ”This was an intentional, deliberate and unlawful use of force.”

Potter, 48, was arrested Wednesday and charged with second-degree manslaughter after days of protests in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, where the shooting took place — just miles from the courthouse where another former police officer, Derek Chauvin, is being tried for murder in the police custody, knee-on-the-neck death last year of George Floyd.

“Driving while Black continues to result in a death sentence,” Crump said. “A 26-year veteran of the force knows the difference between a Taser and a firearm.”

A Taser is lightweight and yellow. Bright yellow. A gun is heavy and black.

It’s like mistaking a plastic fork for a cast iron skillet.

Apologists will point to the need for better Taser training, as if it was even a given that Potter needed to use a stun gun in that situation.

But until police departments address the implicit racism and bias that compels cops to approach people of color with suspicion and force, no amount of weapons training is going to keep unarmed Black men and women from being killed.

When it comes to police-involved shootings, the list of items cops have mistaken for a gun is long. The list includes a hairbrush, a Bible, a cellphone and a wallet.

Potter said she thought her gun was a Taser. How is it that cops can think everything is a gun except their own gun?

— Leonard Greene is a columnist and reporter for the New York Daily News.