Daunte Wright and the Grammar of Kim Potter’s Resignation

Last Sunday, Kim Potter, a longtime member of the police department in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb, shot and killed Daunte Wright, a twenty-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop. She did not mean to grab her gun, the department has since alleged, and body-cam footage would seem to corroborate this: Potter can be heard shouting “Taser!” three times in the deadly scene. Now the public is asked to believe that she intended her words and not the action ultimately performed, that Wright’s death was the result of what her former employer has called, with a bureaucrat’s flair for high euphemism, an “accidental discharge.” Potter did not intentionally discharge her deadliest weapon; she meant a violence of a different kind.

On Wednesday, Potter was charged with second-degree manslaughter, which describes cases in which a person “consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.” Soon enough, the unwieldy force of her police work that night will be dissected and arranged into a fine time line fit for public consumption. Experts will spell out what happened when, and in what order, just as they’re currently doing next door in Minneapolis, in the trial of Derek Chauvin, as if the outcome of these events will make more sense for having time stamps. On Tuesday, Potter resigned from her job in a brief letter addressed only to Brooklyn Center’s mayor (Mike Elliott), acting city manager (Reggie Edwards), and police chief (Tim Gannon, who resigned the same day). “I am tendering my resignation from the Brooklyn Center Police Department effectively immediately. I have loved every minute of being a police officer and serving this community to the best of my ability, but I believe it is in the best interest of the community, the department, and my fellow officers if I resign immediately,” the letter reads, in its entirety.

One imagines that Potter would consult her legal team on the note’s exact wording. There could be no gaffes allowed in a statement like this, no “accidental discharge” of language in the only comments we’ve so far heard from the cop who killed a Black man within ten miles of the Hennepin County Government Center, where the anguished, and perhaps consequential, State of Minnesota v. Derek Michael Chauvin is ongoing. Yet the little that Potter wrote manages to prickle. The statement’s single allowance of emotion—“I have loved every minute”—betrays too much, poking like a burr picked up from some plant that is supposed to spread its seed inconspicuously. The phrase “dog whistle” is granted too much weight in situations like these; one need not be specially attuned to hear the underlying message. I am not the only one who noticed, at any rate. Every minute? Potter has loved being a cop and she has loved every minute of it, the statement insists, even if her final minutes in the field were spent annihilating a man who’d been on earth for less time than she’d been a police officer. I suspect she means it.

The phrase won’t leave me alone. There’s its tense, the present perfect: “have loved.” In his “Four Essays Upon the English Language,” from 1758, John Ward wrote that “the design” of the present-perfect tense “is to intimate” primarily “that a thing has been doing for some time and is not yet finished.” The famous Alfred, Lord Tennyson line that melodramatic exes are so fond of—“ ’Tis better to have loved and lost”—acquires melancholy from his use of the present perfect, conveying a love that does not dissipate in the face of loss. And then there is the other, non-ancillary meaning of “have”—an expression of possession. To have loved is to claim ownership of the object of your affection—love as fiercely protected property.

“Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” the saying goes. Perhaps it’s a fitting phrase for the police, who do not see themselves as members of the workforce—not really. Cops organize “as police, not workers,” experts on policing have noted. Potter, who was once the president of her union, would know such fidelity. And it’s true that they often serve not as workers but as an antagonist, their bodies fitted with increasingly sophisticated weaponry wielded in the interest of a ruling class, which paints police blue for their trouble. Police spend an ignoble amount of time pursuing dangers supposedly held off by that thin blue line. It is a basic observation that they too often arrive after they’re needed, and yet one might rather they didn’t play the hero even as infrequently as they do, given how liable they are to spook themselves into shooting the person who asked for protection in the first place. Over the past year, police have shot and killed nine hundred and eighty-six somebodies on the job. Not all of those dead somebodies are Black, as certain observers like to point out. What a relief!

Potter, who is forty-eight, had spent twenty-six years in her job. That’s a lot of minutes to have loved—approximately three million more than she, in her blue life, permitted Wright in his Black one. All of those accumulated minutes made her a veteran, as she’s often been called in recent days, with all due respect. She was experienced enough to serve as a training officer, instructing others in what it is that an officer does. In fact, as one taunting factlet of the Wright case goes, she was training rookie officers at the very moment that the fatal incident occurred.

And what is it, exactly, that an officer does? In Chicago, where I live, we seldom have to wonder. On Thursday, the city released body-cam footage showing the death of Adam Toledo, a thirteen-year-old boy whom an officer named Eric Stillman shot dead, last month. Stillman’s lawyer, retained by the Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, proclaimed that Toledo was brandishing a gun at the time of the shooting, but in the footage his hands appear raised and empty when Stillman fires. This has not, of course, prevented apologists from running with the version of the story that they feel would make Toledo’s death O.K. Ahead of the video’s release, one such apologist, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, beseeched the people of Chicago to exercise a measure of restraint. She has not expected any similar restraint from the police force, to which she has never failed to acquiesce. “This is a hard thing. It’s complicated,” Lightfoot said. “Police-involved shootings always invoke a significant amount of emotion, as well they should.” But it is not so complex, I think. Not on emotional terms, nor any other. We know what cops do. We know that they love what they do. And what won’t they do to protect that love? I hate to imagine.

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