Explainer: How does an officer use a gun instead of a Taser?
By Canadian Press / The Associated Press
By Canadian Press / The Associated Press
Dec. 13, 2021, United States – At former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter’s manslaughter trial for fatally shooting Daunte Wright, a Black motorist, the core of her defence is clear: She says she meant to use her Taser but grabbed her handgun instead.
Potter’s body-camera video recorded the shooting, with Potter heard saying, “Taser, Taser, Taser” before she fired, followed by, “I grabbed the wrong (expletive) gun.”
Many activists have refused to accept the former Brooklyn Center officer’s explanation. And the prosecution argued in its opening statement that Potter – a 26-year police veteran – had the experience and training to know better.
Taser-gun mix-ups are rare but they have happened in several states in recent years.
Here are some questions and answers about such incidents:
How frequently does this happen?
Experts agree that such incidents are rare and probably happen fewer than once per year throughout the U.S. A 2012 article published in the monthly law journal Americans for Effective Law Enforcement documented nine cases dating back to 2001 in which officers shot suspects with handguns when they said they meant to fire stun guns.
Why does it happen?
Reasons that have been cited include officer training, the way they carry their weapons and the pressure they feel during dangerous and chaotic situations. To avoid confusion, officers typically carry their stun guns on their weak sides – the side of their non-dominant hand – and away from handguns that are carried on their dominant hand’s side. That’s how Potter carried hers, and the chief of her suburban Minneapolis police department at the time of the shooting said that’s how the department’s officers were trained.
Prosecutor Erin Eldridge told jurors in her opening statement that the Brooklyn Center Police Department’s policy requires that officers carry their Taser on their non-dominant side and their firearm on their dominant side. In keeping with that, Potter carried her gun on her right and her Taser on her left.
Officers can choose how they want to position their Tasers in their duty belts, so that they have the option of drawing it from across their body with their dominant hand, or they can choose to draw it with their non-dominant hand. Potter had her Taser positioned in a “straight draw” position on her left, so she would draw it with her left hand.
“The only weapon she draws with her right hand is her gun, not her Taser,” Eldridge said.
Eldridge also detailed how Brooklyn Center officers go through Taser training every year, and get training materials that include warnings on how confusing a Taser with a handgun can cause death or serious injury.
And she told jurors they’ll hear about how Potter’s Taser and her handgun both had a very different look and feel, starting with the colour. A Taser is bright yellow. Potter’s gun was black.
The jury heard Sam McGinnis, a senior special agent with the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, testify in more detail about the differences between the two weapons and how officers use them, bolstering the prosecution’s contention that Potter’s experience and training should have led her to realize her mistake in the several seconds between when she drew her gun and when she fired.
Backed up by photographs, McGinnis said the holsters on Potter’s duty belt require an officer to take deliberate actions to release the weapons. The gun holster has a snap, while the Taser holster has a lever. The handgun, which is black, weighs just over 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms), while the Taser, which is yellow, weighs just under a pound (0.45 kilograms), he said.
The Taser and gun also have different triggers, grips and safety mechanisms that must be engaged before firing, McGinnis testified. The Taser also has a laser and LED lights that display before it is fired, which he demonstrated for the jury, while the handgun does not.
McGinnis also testified that Potter didn’t perform a function test on her Taser before her shift on the day that she shot Wright, or on the previous day. He said she did run the check six times in her last 10 shifts. The Brooklyn Center Police Department’s policy is that officers are required to run the check before each shift. McGinnis acknowledged under cross-examination that he didn’t check to see how widely the department’s officers complied with the policy.
What does the defence say?
Defence attorney Paul Engh told jurors in his opening statement that an expert will testify about how in chaotic situations like this shooting, a person’s ingrained training takes over. He said Potter had 26 years of gun training, but fewer years of training on her Taser, which is a newer weapon.
Engh said they’ll hear that Potter made an “action error,” the sort in which someone does something while meaning to do something else, such as writing the previous year on a check out of habit, or typing an old password into a computer. He also compared them with errors made under stress by experienced pilots or surgeons.
“We are in a human business,” Engh said. “Police officers are human beings. And that’s what occurred.”
Bill Lewinski, an expert on police psychology and the founder of the Force Science Institute in Mankato, Minnesota, has used the phrase “slip and capture” errors to describe the phenomenon.
Lewinski, who has testified on behalf of police, has said officers sometimes perform the direct opposite of their intended actions under stress – that 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 using their stun guns.
Other experts are skeptical of the theory.
“There’s no science behind it,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police use of force. “It’s a good theory, but we have no idea if it’s accurate.”
Alpert said a major factor in why officers mistakenly draw their firearm is that stun guns typically look and feel like a firearm.