The media and civil rights activists are buzzing around an incident where a police officer accidentally mistook her Glock for a stun gun and ended up fatally shooting a Black man during a routine traffic stop.
There are many questions surrounding Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter’s shooting of Daunte Wright, as law enforcement experts try to understand what was going on in her mind and what caused the mix-up.
According to the AP, Potter, a 26-year-veteran on the force, resigned after accidentally firing her pistol instead of a taser during the traffic stop of Daunte Wright. Wright, who was fatally struck in the chest, was initially pulled over by police for traffic violations such as expired plates and an item hanging form his rearview mirror. Police soon found that there was a warrant out for his arrest.
When he attempted to flee, Potter was caught on video yelling “Taser! Taser! Taser!” as part of the officer’s training prior to deploying the taser, but fired a bullet from her Glock instead. After shooting Wright, she can be heard on camera saying “Holy [expletive]. I shot him.”
While experts agreed that her deadly action was unintentional, it was still inexcusable. Professor of criminal justice at John Jay College and former Florida police officer Dennis Kenney said, “There is no indication that the officer intended to use deadly force. That said, it goes nowhere near excusing this mistake.”
Experts agreed that the deadly mistake was a result of confusion during a high-stress scenario combined with inadequate training.
Maria Haberfeld, also a John Jay professor, said, “People underestimate the level of stress police officers experience during traffic stops.”
She continued, “A lot of police officers get killed doing what should be routine traffic stops and a veteran officer like Potter would be acutely aware of that. The longer you are on the job, the more layers of stress you accumulate. And errors of judgment happen when you are under stress.”
Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith, spokeswoman for the National Police Association and a retired 29-year veteran of the Naperville Police Department in Illinois told NBC News, “It’s not like she looked at her gun and thought it was a Taser. It’s a horrible, horrible motor glitch that could happen in high-stress situations.”
Reaching for the wrong gun is a rare but possible occurrence.
A 2012 article published in the monthly law journal Americans for Effective Law Enforcement found nine documented cases dating back to 2001 where officers fired their handgun when they meant to fire their Taser, including a famous case in 2009 in Oakland when a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer shot and killed Oscar Grant. The incident later inspired the film Fruitvale Station.
The statistical probability of such an event falls in at an average of less than one time per year.
Another reason for the “motor glitch” may be due to muscle memory developed during training, where officers fire their gun around 5,000 times in the police academy, but fire a taser only around 10 times.
While tasers are placed on an officer’s non-dominant side opposite their handgun, officers may sometimes draw their handgun simply out of a motor reflex during a highly stressful situation.
Experts are looking for specific solutions to ensure that these kinds of accidents are less likely to occur, and have considered changing the look and design of Tasers so they are less easily mistaken with handguns, as well as providing adequate Taser training.
St. Paul Minnesota Mayor Melvin Carter backed the former solution. “Why do we even have Tasers that operate and function and feel and deploy exactly like a firearm? Why can’t we have Tasers that look and feel different? That you could never mistake for deploying a firearm so that we can ensure that mistake that has happened before can never happen again?” he asked.
Mike Leonesio, a former police officer and Taser instructor, favored training instead. He said in a Reuters report that there is no research proving the Taser’s color makes a difference in the heat of a stressful encounter.
“In training I’ve done, often officers don’t even remember drawing their weapon or what it looked like,” said Leonesio. Instead, he advocated more training to avoid such mix-ups.
Haberfeld also looks to better training as a way to avoid such mistakes, but cost could be an obstacle. “Police training is in horrible shape in the United States. They don’t get refresher courses for years. And with the Taser, it’s just a few hours.”
Smith said that the lack of training is due to budget constraints. “Each Taser cartridge is expensive and not every department has Taser simulators on which officers can train,” she said.