The American justice system failed former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter. From the initial release of body camera footage, it was clear she made a tragic and deadly mistake. End of story. Full stop. Nothing was criminal about what happened, unless you consider the fact that Daunte Wright was a thugging animal who was pulled over for legitimate reasons and later attempted to be detained lawfully because of outstanding warrants for violence against women.
As the trial played out, my own beliefs surrounding the charges were only inured. Officers knew of his violent and extensive criminal background at the time of, and indeed were the reason for, his arrest. He escaped into the car and his actions at that point were unpredictable. Once inside, he could very well have reached for a weapon. If sped off, his vehicle could just as easily turn into a weapon of its own. In that case, Potter’s partner could have been dragged by the vehicle. In sum total, credible expert testimony revealed she would have been fully justified in exercising lethal force against Daunte Wright. On top of all of that, add the split-second decisions that come from engaging with the most ruthless and despicable people in society, and she naturally shouldn’t have been given some leeway anyways.
So, let it be known that I think professionals deserve to live in the gray area. This doesn’t excuse every negligible homicide, but it does provide grace to human beings and the human factor. To think otherwise erases nuance. We also have to view the purpose of detention. If rehabilitation is the goal, does someone like Potter learn her lesson that the accidental taking of life already hasn’t? If the purpose is to remove bad actors from society, do we benefit by having a career officer with a clean record who made a heat-of-the-moment error locked up indefinitely? It’s insane to answer those questions other than just one way.
There is a whole separate article to be written about justice system inequities. If you want to go down the racial path, it’s easy to start asking questions why mutual combatants in Chicago can murder one another and not be charged or how school schooters in Texas can post bail and and party with their family the same day. Why do American patriots find themselves locked up without charges in D.C. jails for ten months and no prospect of imminent release when burning, looting, and murdering BLMers are supported by a major party candidate for vice president? Why do small business owners go to jail for trying to earn a living while other criminals get released in order to reduce prison population and spread during Covid?
But back to Potter. She made a mistake. Should she go to jail? If you think that, then what deadly accident shouldn’t result in incarceration? Aren’t all accidents, by definition, the results of negligence? What’s the alternative, on purpose and intentional? Once you go down the path of making everything culpable negligence, it seems like there is no limiting principle, and that is where I have a few questions for those celebrating the verdict of the Kim Potter trial.
If an airline pilot, and human error results in loss of the aircraft and subsequently the loss of life, should they go to prison for culpable negligence? Nearly every reader is familiar with a story of an airliner crash; they happen so rarely that stories of cataclysm and mayhem spark panic in our own imaginations. Did readers know that an estimated 75% of commercial airliner tragedies are man-made?
Consider, for example, the story of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, a San Francisco-bound flight originating in South Korea in 2013. After making the transpacific flight, the cockpit crew was cleared for a visual approach and so switched off the autopilot features. According to blackbox recorder data, in the span of a few moments pilot conversation switched from being on too high a glide path, being on the right glide path, and being on too low a glide path for their manual descent. Eventually, the aircraft approached the runway with speeds not able to maintain lift; although throttles were boosted before impact, the loss of airspeed resulted in the plane crashing in the seawall preceding the runway. Several people were ejected from the plane as its tail was ripped off. Amazingly, despite the fiery scene and horrific experience, only three people died (although scores more were severely injured).
Despite a thorough investigation, and a clear example of human error, no criminal charges were brought against the pilots? Why not? Excepting different state statutes and the fact that the pilots were foreign nationals, is the circumstance any less demanding
As if that were not bad enough, I also selected this story because of the less-known atrocity committed that day. While en route to the inferno, a firetruck allegedly ran over one of the aforementioned victims who had been thrown from the ruptured aircraft. A description of that encounter is provided by Wikipedia:
“Helmet-recorded images showed that firefighters on the scene saw two of the three victims still alive after being thrown from the plane. The driver of the fire engine ran over them. The firefighter is reported to have said “She got run over… I mean, shit happens, you know?” Afterward the incident was reported by the firefighter to San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne M. Hayes-White stating “Chief, there’s a woman there who’s been run over by one of our rigs.” The chief asked if the victim had been crushed, to which the firefighter replied “like someone dropped a pumpkin.”
As with the pilots, no criminal charges were brought against the driver for culpable negligence, despite the driver’s training demanding he not run over civilians in his path.
An equal argument could be made for doctors. Just as the fact that pilot (human) error is responsible for fully three-quarters of all aviation-related deaths, so too does the medical community own a lion’s share of otherwise-preventable deaths. Even before Covid, the medical community was responsible for an estimated 250,000 annual deaths, through a combination of misdiagnoses, bad prescriptions, surgical errors, and other causes related to living with fallible human beings. Medical professionals carry a lot of malpractice insurance, but should they also worry about being placed in an orange jumpsuit?
Consider, for example, the story of a Rhode Island neurosurgeon who operated on the wrong side of a patient’s head. (If you Google this, it’s frightening how often these types of surgeries occur.) After both he and a nurse forgot to write down the side of the head in question, as well as declined to consult a CT scan – and being asked about it by a second nurse – the doctor went off memory in the operating room. After initiating the surgery and at some point realizing the error, the doctor simply completed the required surgical task. Three weeks later, the patient was dead.
After an in-house investigation, the news outlet from which I drew this story relayed the following information:
“After reviewing that incident, the state Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline decided there were mitigating circumstances and opted to create a remediation plan for Harrington rather than publicly sanction him, said Dr. Robert Crausman, the board’s chief administrative officer.
Crausman said the board determined Harrington had a good record, was summoned to the hospital for an early morning emergency and was credited with saving the patient’s life.”
A fair person could ask whether the doctor’s actions were less or more egregious than, say, Kim Potter. I would be inclined to say they’re worse. Not only is the doctor working in a safe and controlled environment (the patient isn’t resisting surgery, for one), but he has the time to methodically review the process, whereas Potter was basically reacting to a morally and physically untethered monster. Moreover, the doctor willingly skirted basic understandings of his task. Potter did not. And yet society says he gets a pass and she gets the book?
In both the example of pilots and doctors, these are but two of thousands of examples that could easily be found in the annals of deadly human error. It is true that most police cases are not adjudicated, but in recent memory the Twin Cities has hosted two significant trials involving black suspects and white officers. A fair-minded person could easily arrive at different conclusions than did both juries.
Do the results make communities safer? Is this best for society? If you want to talk about police abuse of power, then let’s talk about Covid rule enforcement. If you want to talk about officers making mistakes while on the line of duty, make sure you’re prepared to go to jail yourself for the next mistake you make.