Two accidental shootings by police, two very different approaches to justice
(Photo via Commonwealth of Massachusetts)
Minnesota and its government officials delivered an important lesson recently on how to provide justice — and their lesson should be taken to heart by their neighbors in Iowa.
The contrast is jarring between the way government handled the deaths of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minn., and Autumn Steele in Burlington, Iowa. One was shot to death while trying to evade arrest. The other was the unintended victim of a fatal shooting.
Iowans should be uncomfortable with the questions that grow naturally out of these contrasts. We should be embarrassed by the starkly different ways government in the two states treated the people responsible for these deaths, police officer Kimberly Potter and police officer Jesse Hill.
Daunte Wright, 20, was driving in the Minneapolis suburb on April 11, 2021, when a police officer stopped him because an air freshener was hanging from his rearview mirror and because the license plates on his car were expired.
A computer check then found there was a warrant for Wright’s arrest for failing to appear in court on a gun-possession charge. When the officer tried to put handcuffs on him and take him into custody, Wright pulled loose and tried to drive away.
A second officer, Kimberly Potter, warned Wright she had a Taser. But she mistakenly fired her semi-automatic handgun, not her electronic stun gun, and Wright died from his wound.
In the Iowa case, Autumn Steele, 34, was arguing with her husband, Gabriel, outside their home on Jan. 6, 2015, as Gabriel Steele held the couple’s toddler.
Officer Jesse Hill was dispatched to sort out the dispute. Moments after arriving, the Steeles’ dog came running toward the group. Hill had a fear of dogs. He pulled his semi-automatic handgun and started backing away.
Hill slipped on the snowy ground as he fired two bullets, fatally wounding Autumn Steele.
One month after the Burlington shooting, before the complete police body camera video was made public and before summaries of witness statements were released, Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers decided Hill would face no criminal charges.
She said he acted appropriately to protect himself from the threat the dog posed — even though the Steeles and their 3-year-old son were just feet away when Hill fired his gun.
Hill was never disciplined for his actions.
It is worth noting that Beavers’ report did not include statements from witnesses who contradicted the officer’s account that the dog was being aggressive. The report also excluded another piece of evidence — that Hill’s dog bite injury did not even require a Band-Aid.
In contrast with the limited information made public in the days after the Burlington shooting, Minnesota officials released police body camera video. Officer Potter resigned within a couple of days of the tragedy, sparing city officials from public pressure to fire her.
Potter was charged with manslaughter by the Minnesota attorney general. His involvement avoided potential conflict of interests concerns by removing the decision from the local prosecutor, who works closely with Brooklyn Center police.
In contrast, Beavers herself made the decision in the Burlington case, even though she worked daily with the city’s police.
On Dec. 23, a jury found Potter guilty of manslaughter. Under Minnesota sentencing guidelines, she faces a potential prison term of six to eight years.
Prosecutor Erin Eldridge told jurors, “Accidents can still be crimes. This was a colossal screw-up of epic proportions.”
But no Iowa jury ever got a chance to weigh whether Autumn Steele’s death was simply a horrible, unavoidable accident or whether it resulted from officer Hill’s reckless or negligent use of a gun so close to innocent bystanders.
Prosecutors in the Minnesota attorney general’s office knew that they had to leave it to a jury to decide Potter’s guilt or innocence.
But in Iowa, one prosecutor substituted her judgment for the judgment of 12 jurors. She did not take a chance on having a jury to hear all of the evidence and make the decision.
Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers asserted there was no criminal charge that was appropriate in circumstances like those involving officer Hill. However, she disregarded involuntary manslaughter — a charge that is applicable when a person has no intent to harm someone but, nevertheless, engages in conduct likely to cause death.
The conclusions from analyzing the two cases are clear:
Prosecutors in Minnesota understood that even though Daunte Wright was trying to escape arrest, the public’s confidence and respect for the justice system would be significantly tarnished if prosecutors, rather than a jury, decided whether to exonerate officer Kimberly Potter.
A prosecutor in Iowa was oblivious of this reality, however, when she decided how to respond to officer Jesse Hill’s role in Autumn Steele’s wholly unnecessary death. Regrettably, our justice system in Iowa was severely diminished by the handling of the Steele death.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said law officers should not be discouraged by Potter being held accountable for her actions — something he said provided the Wright family with “a measure of accountability.”
“I wish nothing but the best for her and her family,” he said, referring to officer Potter. “But the truth is, she will be able to correspond with them and visit with them no matter what happens. The Wright family won’t be able to talk with Daunte.”
Likewise, Autumn Steele’s children, her husband, and her dear mother, Gina, have not been able to talk with her for the past seven years. Unlike Minnesota, the justice system in Iowa did not provide even a measure of accountability.
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