|Daunte Wright protest|
A Minnesota police officer fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old black man, during a traffic stop on Sunday in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, with news reports indicating the oficer meant to grab a taser instead of firing with her gun. That this could happen during an already tense time, with Derek Chauvin on trial for murder in the police-related death of George Floyd, boggles the mind. Even more unbelievable is this: The mistaken use of a gun over a taser is not a new issue in law enforcement.
Officer Kim Potter has submitted a resignation letter, but she leaves behind this question: How does a 26-year veteran of the police force mistake a gun for a taser? It apparently happens more than many of us might imagine. From a 2015 Associated Press report titled, "Stun gun or handgun: How often do police get confused?":
Robert Bates, the volunteer sheriff's deputy who killed an unarmed suspect in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on April 2, says he accidentally fired his handgun when he meant to deploy his stun gun. Bates pled "not guilty" to second-degree manslaughter charges at a court hearing Tuesday. He apologized for killing Eric Harris last week but described his deadly mistake as a common problem in law enforcement, saying: "This has happened a number of times around the country. ... You must believe me, it can happen to anyone."
Bates' statement does not appear to be altogether accurate:
Experts agree this is a real but very rare occurrence that probably happens less than once a year nationwide. A 2012 article published in the monthly law journal of Americans for Effective Law Enforcement documented nine cases in which officers shot suspects with handguns when they said they meant to fire stun guns dating back to 2001. The list included three instances in California and one each in Minnesota, Maryland, Arizona, Washington, Kentucky and Canada. For perspective, Taser International says its stun guns have been deployed more than 2.7 million times in the field.
Still, how do such mix-ups happen at all?
The way officers carry their weapons, how officers are trained and the stress of dangerous, chaotic situations have been cited. To avoid confusion, officers typically carry their stun guns on their weak sides, away from handguns that are carried on the side of their strong arms. A right-handed officer, for instance, would carry his handgun on his right and his stun gun on his left. In many of the documented cases of confusion, however, the two weapons were holstered near each other on the officers' strong side. . . .
Bill Lewinski, an expert on police psychology and founder of The Force Science Institute in Mankato, Minnesota, has coined the phrase "slip and capture" errors to describe them. Lewinski, who has testified on behalf of police, has said officers sometimes perform the direct opposite of their intended actions under stress — their actions "slip" and are "captured" by a stronger response. He notes that officers train far more often on drawing and firing their handguns than they do on their stun guns.Other experts are critical of his theory, calling it junk science and arguing that well-trained officers should not confuse the two weapons.
A 2016 AP report shows such incidents can have an awful mix of tragedy and (for lack of a better word) comedy:
When Alfred Olango pulled out an object from his right pocket last month and assumed a shooting stance in a strip mall parking lot in a San Diego suburb, one officer opened fire with his pistol. The other officer simultaneously stunned Olango using his Taser.
Civil rights advocates say the different response by officers facing the same suspect illustrates a breakdown in police training and communication and shows that some officers are too quick to turn to deadly force.
The Sept. 27 shooting death of the 38-year-old Ugandan refugee who turned out to be wielding an electronic cigarette device came 11 days after another unarmed black man, 40-year-old Terence Crutcher, died in Tulsa, Oklahoma after being shot by two officers also simultaneously firing a gun and a Taser.
“I think when one police officer feels it is appropriate to use a less lethal weapon like a Taser, and the other officer feels like the person has to be killed — it suggests a real divergence in training,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s criminal law reform project.
He added: “I think it highlights that we have a serious problem in this country, which has been seen played out over and over again with police using lethal force in circumstances where it is not necessary and not justified.”
Susan Zhang, writing at Truthout, says there is reason to doubt the Minnesota cops' stories:
The police officer who shot Wright alleges that she had meant to pull out her taser but pulled out her gun instead. Many have cast doubt on that narrative, however; as news outlets like The New York Times have noted, tasers and the type of gun the officer killed Wright with feel very different in hand. They’re also typically worn on opposite sides of an officer’s hip to avoid confusion.
“Not. An. Accident. Why was this cop wanting to pull a taser on a 20-year old kid for expired tags in the first place? Absurd,” wrote leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington). “Impossible that a veteran cop couldn’t tell difference between taser and gun. We need real consequences for these killings.” Potter is a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center Police Department.
Others noted that, if even after extensive training, police can’t distinguish between a gun and a taser, then the system is flawed. There have been multiple similar incidents before, including in Minneapolis, where a police officer had supposedly meant to pull out a stun gun and instead shot someone.
“If someone has been a police officer for 26 years and can’t distinguish a gun from a taser, that’s a solid indication as any that training will do nothing and it’s time to abolish this relic of slavery,” said Bree Newsome Bass on Twitter, racial advocate and artist.