Daunte Wright’s persistence in evading arrest on a weapons violation during an April 11 traffic stop justified the use of deadly force against him, former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter’s then-supervisor testified Friday in Hennepin County District Court.
Former Brooklyn Center police Sgt. Mychal Johnson, now a major in the Red Wing-based Goodhue County Sheriff’s Department, spoke about the fatal attempted arrest in which he participated and witnessed. Johnson was reaching through the passenger door to try to restrain the 20-year-old Wright when Potter mistakenly shot him with her gun instead of her Taser.
Leading up to Potter’s trial on first- and second-degree manslaughter charges, her lawyers said she made a mistake by grabbing her gun from her right hip instead of her Taser from left. Prosecutors are arguing she was reckless, negligent and disregarded her firearms safety training.
Johnson’s testimony, however, opened a new line of defense: justification.
In his cross-examination of Johnson, defense lawyer Earl Gray asked: “So basically, based on these videos, and the conduct of Daunte Wright, as far as you’re concerned — and you were there — Kimberly Potter would have had a right to use a firearm, right?”
Johnson answered, “Yes.”
Testimony in Potter’s trial began Wednesday. Johnson was one of three witnesses Friday, offering the most substantive evidence of the day. Through him, prosecutors showed additional footage from the scene of the shooting and the aftermath focused on a distraught Potter, repeatedly saying, “Oh my God.”
Also testifying Friday about logistics and process in the aftermath at the scene were Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tony Gruenig and state Bureau of Apprehension assistant special agent in charge Charles Michael Phill II, who oversees the state agency’s use of force unit.
With Johnson on the stand, prosecutors led him through his version of the day and showed the dramatic squad and body camera footage. He led jurors, who aren’t seen on the livestream outside Judge Regina Chu’s courtroom, through his arrival on the scene after Officer Anthony Luckey put out the call for backup. Luckey, driving under Potter’s training supervision and guidance, had pulled Wright over for expired tabs and an air freshener dangling from his rearview mirror.
Upon his arrival, Johnson testified that he learned from Luckey that Wright had a gross misdemeanor warrant for possessing a handgun without a permit, an indication to them that Wright could be armed. An unidentified woman also had a protective order against Wright.
As the three approached Wright’s car, Potter and Luckey were on the driver’s side with Johnson on the passenger side. Footage from Johnson’s body camera showed Wright looking at him across the roof of the white Buick. Luckey tried to handcuff Wright and Johnson told him he was under arrest.
But Wright moved quickly to slip off the handcuffs and get back into the driver’s seat of the car. Footage showed Johnson reaching in from the passenger side, while he testified that he was pushing the car shift firmly into park and trying to remove the key from the ignition. As Wright moved around, Johnson testified he grabbed Wright’s right arm with both his hands while pressing his weight against the front-seat passenger, Alayna Albrecht-Payton.
When he heard Potter yell ‘Taser’, Johnson said he released his hands from Wright to avoid the shock. But Potter had fired a single shot from her handgun, killing Wright and the Buick rolled away from the officers leaving a distraught Potter exclaiming that she’d shot him.
Given Wright’s resistance to arrest for the weapons charge, Johnson said state law allowed Potter to use deadly force against Wright. Like Luckey’s body camera footage shown Wednesday, Johnson’s camera captured a stunned Potter collapsing onto the ground and crying. Johnson’s camera captured additional dialogue that Gray highlighted.
“You said, ‘Kim, that guy was trying to take off with me in the car,’ ” Gray said. Johnson responded, “Yes.”
“And if he had taken off with you in that car halfway,” Gray continued, “what would have happened to you? What do you think would be the worst that would happen?”
“Probably dragged,” Johnson answered before agreeing with Gray’s assertion that he also was at risk of serious injury or death by dragging.
“And if that were the case,” Gray continued, “would an officer in your position, with Officer Potter trying to stop [Wright] from resisting with you and resisting [fellow Officer Anthony] Luckey, would it be fair for that officer to use a firearm to stop him?”
Johnson replied, “By state statute, yes.”
When prosecutor Matthew Frank questioned Johnson again after Gray, he asked about the need for officers to be aware of their surroundings when using firearms because of the danger to bystanders. He noted how close Potter was to Johnson and Albrecht-Payton when she fired.
“Could [Potter] have shot you?” Frank asked, and Johnson responded, “yes.” He also noted that he was somewhat disoriented immediately after the shot was fired from having been so close to the sound.
“I heard a loud pop,” Johnson testifed, adding, “I thought at the time is was a Taser.”
Johnson agreed with Frank that the car drove off only because Potter fired her gun and after he had already gotten out of the vehicle.
As other officers arrived and converged on the scene where Wright crashed a few blocks away, Johnson, Luckey and Potter stayed back. Potter was on the ground, gasping and crying. She said, “I don’t know what happened” and “I’m going to prison.”
Johnson tried to reassure her, saying, “We’ll get it all figured out, OK?”
As the video played in court, Potter put her head in her hands, shook and cried at the defense table as the footage were shown, according to a pool report from a reporter in the courtroom. Wright’s mother, Katie Bryant, who was also in the room, cried quietly while the video played and held a friend’s hand.
He also talked about taking Potter’s gun because it was evidence. He was heard in court on his body camera video saying, “Kim, I’m gonna take this but give you mine, OK? … I’ll give you my gun, I just want to hang on to yours.”
But then another officer, Colleen Fricke, expressed concern that Potter would harm herself. As Potter sat crying in the back of another squad, Johnson was seen on video taking his gun, discreetly removing the ammunition and returning the empty weapon to Potter.
Chu let the jury go home earlier than usual Friday afternoon because of substantial snowfall. She and lawyers met in chambers to discuss autopsy photos expected to be introduced into evidence Monday by the medical examiner.
Per the family’s request, the photos will not be shown on the livestream outside the courthouse. Chu also has limited the number that will be shown so as to avoid prejudicing the jury.