The New York Daily News:
It might seem absurd that a trained police officer would mistake a gun for a Taser and accidentally kill someone, but it’s a defense that’s been used in cases before the Sunday shooting death of Daunte Wright.
In the New Year’s Day 2009 fatal police shooting of 22-year-old Black man Oscar Grant, an Oakland, Calif., transit cop fired his service weapon and later claimed he thought it was his Taser. Bay Area Rapid Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the case and sentenced to two years in prison. He was released early for good behavior.
In 2015, a white volunteer sheriff’s deputy in Tulsa, Okla., fatally shot Black man Eric Harris, 44, during an undercover operation, later claiming he confused his personal Smith & Wesson revolver with a Taser that wasn’t even on his hip at the time. Robert Bates, 73, was charged with second-degree manslaughter, convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. He served less than half the sentence.
In the case of Wright’s fatal shooting Sunday by a female officer in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, Police Chief Tim Gannon said Monday the officer accidentally fired her gun thinking it was her Taser.
In graphic bodycam video, the officer approaches the car, draws her weapon and aims it point-blank at Wright.
“I’ll Tase you! I’ll Tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!” she shouts before firing.
“Sh-t. I just shot him,” she stammered after Wright managed to drive away before crashing a few blocks later and dying at the scene.
Experts who spoke to the Daily News said trained officers should be able to tell the difference between a gun and a Taser, but the weapons are very similar in shape, making confusion at least a possibility.
“As tragic as it is, and as preposterous as it sounds, it’s not impossible,” Charles “Sid” Heal, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department commander who went on to work for the National Tactical Officers Association, said Monday. H
Heal testified in a similar case back in 2002 when Officer Marcy Noriega drew her semiautomatic handgun instead of her Taser and fatally shot Everardo Torres in Madera, Calif.
Noriega kept her Taser in a thigh holster below her Glock and said the fatal shooting was a mixup.
Called as an expert witness in the case, Heal testified the mistake was indicative of a lack of training. He has since changed his stance, saying he now believes it was caused by the impaired judgment that coincides with “crisis decision-making” and the fact that Tasers feel so much like firearms, he said Monday.
“The Taser was designed to exploit muscle memory. That’s a big thing all by itself. It feels and functions like a pistol, aims like a pistol, pops like a pistol. So as a result of that, when you pick it up, your brain doesn’t know if it’s a pistol or a Taser,” he said.
Another expert echoed the concern that Tasers are simply too similar to guns.
“I believe the design feature of the Taser looking and feeling like a handgun has led us to this situation,” said Phil Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University.
“It could be designed to look like lot of things – a Nerf football or an old box resembling a transistor radio. But it looks like a gun. Maybe the answer is taking away firearms and leaving officers with only their Tasers,” he said.