Potter trial: police testify on Taser training, use-of-force policies

YouTube/PBS NewsHour St. Mike Peterson demonstrating Taser usage to the court

In the trial of former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter on Tuesday, two Brooklyn Center Police Department (BCPD) leaders testified to the department’s policies and training requirements: Commander Garett Flesland and use-of-force instructor Sgt. Mike Peterson.

In the afternoon, Peterson walked the jury through the Taser training and recertification process. This seems critical to the prosecution’s argument that as a 26-year veteran, Potter should have known better than to mistake her firearm for a taser.

Peterson has been certified to use a Taser since 2005, and to instruct since 2007. When asked why he decided to become an instructor, he said he wanted to ensure his officers are the best trained in Minnesota, for “selfishly, my own personal safety.”

Peterson testified that all officers must go through specific use-of-force training every year to maintain licensing and must be recertified on Tasers annually. Departments have discretion on how training is given to individual officers. He uses “scenario-based” trainings, meant to recreate real-life situations, so officers can learn and practice responding with different weapons.

Taser’s parent company Axon provides certification requirements and material for instructors. Taser recertification entails reviewing a PowerPoint, reviewing product warnings and user considerations, an officer showing proficiency of use, and an officer firing a minimum of two cartridges in “preferred target zones.”

In the training materials exhibited in court, preferred target zones are shown to be a person’s back, arms, and legs. Materials guide officers to avoid firing Tasers into the chest and heart region to avoid cardiac risk. Tasers should also not be deployed on individuals “in an environment that may cause serious injury or death” like operating a vehicle, or “in a physical position that prevents the officer from aiming or maintaining appropriate body targeting, unless justified.”

Peterson said that if an officer is too close to a person, the Taser will only create pain and not neuromuscular incapacitation (i.e. muscle contraction), which is the goal of using a Taser.

According to the BCPD Policy Manual, all Taser devices must be clearly and distinctly marked so they can be differentiated from a gun or other devices. Brooklyn Center uses bright yellow Taser to differentiate; other agencies might use different feels or weights, said Peterson.

Peterson explained their policy is to have Tasers worn opposite firearms, but officers have the option to holster Tasers on either their right or left side. Both holster options have safety releases.

Prosecutor Matthew Frank had Peterson demonstrate the Taser spark function test in court. The test took less than a minute. On Monday, a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent testified that Potter had failed to run the test as is required before every shift. Also, Assistant Hennepin County Medical Examiner Lorren Jackson testified on Monday that Wright’s gunshot wound damaged his heart and lungs and was not survivable.

Wrapping up court on Tuesday, Frank asked Peterson: “In all the years that you have been working at the Brooklyn Center Police Department, have you been aware of any other officers who have drawn their handgun when they meant to draw their taser?”

Peterson paused. “I don’t.”

Earlier in the day

In the morning, the Judge overruled two motions by the prosecution. The state wanted to admit evidence related to Potter’s police union membership, citing those police witnesses would be biased toward Potter, a former union president. The state also argued that the defense is using police witnesses as expert opinions when they are not experts.

Judge Regina Chu said union membership is not relevant in this case and that officers are testifying to what they are trained to do. 

After the jury was seated, the state brought in Commander Flelsland, who has been with BCPD since 2000, to explain how policies and training are implemented.

Flesland became certified to use a Taser in 2002 or 2003. Throughout his career, he has carried his firearm on the right side and Taser on the left. “That’s how the policy has always been and that’s how we’ve always been trained,” he testified.

He confirmed that Potter got Taser training certifications and re-certifications in 2002, 2005, 2007, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2020, and 2021. He also verified body camera footage showing Potter wearing her Taser on her left side in different years.

Flesland said any changes to the around 700-page policy manual are sent out to every officer via email. Officers must electronically acknowledge changes. When they are more significant, policy changes are reviewed during roll calls.

The prosecution took Flesland through the BCPD Code of Ethics and Policy Manual to confirm the terms under which police officers agree to serve. A police candidate must have the ability to use good judgment under pressure, for example. Flesland testified to when Potter signed off on revisions to the policy manual over the years, indicating her awareness of officer expectations.

Notably, the policy manual discourages officers from shooting at moving vehicles. Flesland said this is because shooting is rarely effective at stopping vehicles and “the vehicle could strike something or somebody.”

Flesland spoke to the police’s unique mandate to use force. “It’s a significant reach of the government,” he said, explaining why the use-of-force policy is explicitly defined.

The prosecution’s questioning revealed a policy that allows officers to not engage in vehicle pursuits. Flesland said that police chases are never predictable and are a risk to public safety. Officers should only initiate pursuits in specific circumstances, e.g. when there is an immediate risk to the public if a person is not apprehended. 

Murder, manslaughter, assault, robbery, and kidnapping charges are all valid reasons under the policy. Wright’s gross misdemeanor warrant is not.

Fleland agreed with the prosecution that if the identity of the driver is known, apprehension could be delayed. Potter signed off to this vehicle pursuit policy on April 6, 2021 – days before the fatal traffic stop.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Earl Gray challenged that the moving vehicle policy does not apply to Wright who was in a stopped car. Fleland does not know the details of Potter’s case but agreed that a person without license or insurance might be OK to pursue.

“I see more guns now than in 2000,” he said. Reasonable force can be used to stop someone attempting to flee. He said he would be concerned if he was going to arrest someone with a warrant for a weapons violation.

Judge Chu overruled the state’s objections to Gray’s questions multiple times.

Fleland said Potter always attended training and had never been charged with abuse of power or excessive force.

Fleland confirmed that neither officer involved with the traffic stop that lead to Wright’s death—Officer Luckey or Sgt. Johnson—has been disciplined or sanctioned.

During the morning break, Potter’s defense said in case of a guilty verdict, Potter wants Judge Chu to determine whether she will get longer sentencing, and not a jury.

The state had expressed intent to seek higher sentencing than mandated by state guidelines due to aggravating factors. The state argues that in shooting Wright, Potter created a greater public safety risk and abused her position of authority.

The trial is scheduled to continue Wednesday morning at 9 am.