After the killing of Daunte Wright in Minnesota, a look at how an officer can mix up a gun with a taser

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

The Taser X2 gun is on display at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in San Diego, California, U.S. October 17, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Mike Blake

Former police officer Kim Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter after fatally shooting 20-year-old Daunte Wright in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center last weekend. He was pulled over when driving, then a scuffle ensued, and Potter pulled out her gun and shot him. She resigned afterward, and said she thought she was using her taser.

But how is it possible for an officer to confuse a gun and a taser? There are police protocols designed to prevent that from happening. The tasers are a different color, and they’re tougher to reach and unholster.

Across the country, police reevaluated their taser policies after the killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland 12 years ago. The police officer involved there also claimed he thought he was using a taser.

KCRW talks about this with Deputy Sheriff Ed Obayashi of the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office. He’s also an advisor for the California Association of Police Training Officers.

KCRW: Do most police officers carry both guns at the same time?

Edward Obayashi: “Typically, yes, it depends on the department. … There's probably only one major police department in California that does not authorize their officers to carry tasers. But by and large, the overwhelming majority of departments in California, as well as the United States, do carry both a firearm and a taser.”

Police are trained to differentiate the two?

“They are. However, it is not as simple as it may appear, or straightforward as many news articles and interviews have discussed. I know it's hard for the layperson to comprehend that a trained police officer cannot differentiate between a taser and a handgun, much less a 20-year plus veteran such as Officer Potter.

But the reality is this: The taser and a firearm are very similar in design. If you look at [them] side-by-side, obviously, visually you can tell the difference. But officers are trained otherwise not to look at the weapon they are drawing from their duty belt for obvious reasons, and keep the focus on the perceived threat. So they are constantly trained in being able to draw whatever weapon that is needed without having to look down. Those are precious milliseconds.

So in this case, or previous cases like the BART shooting … and others in California, we learned from those tragedies. First, the department's transitioned away from having both the taser and the firearm on the same side. In other words, the dominant hand side. So after that, the taser was transitioned positionally to the less dominant side. So the dominant hand would not mistake either one for the other.

The Oscar Grant situation is parallel to the Brooklyn Center case in the sense that yes, the taser by Officer Potter was situated on the left side, the less dominant side, which is standard industry practice. However, you will notice in the video … the handle of the taser on the less dominant side is faced forward to allow an officer to reach across his or her body in a cross draw function and draw the taser. That was the same situation in the Oscar Grant incident. And we recommended after that to eliminate that cross draw function, to prevent an Oscar Grant incident from happening again. So in other words, we required the taser handle to be pointed backwards, as a traditional firearm configuration, so that the dominant hand, based on muscle memory flick reflex, wasn't going to mistake the taser from the firearm. So only the less dominant hand would be able to draw the taser.”

The maker of tasers says that its weapons also are heavier than firearms, and that they're available in yellow to contrast with, let's say, a black gun. Do you think these design changes are enough? Do you think the manufacturer of the taser should do something more to make them even less like a gun?

“Well there's been discussions about that throughout the years. But again, if an officer was trained or allowed to look down at what weapon he or she was about to deploy, again, that distracts the attention from the primary threat.

… When you grab a taser, it feels like a handgun. It's got a pistol grip. They weigh about the same in many cases, some cases less, depending on what type of firearm that officer is carrying to begin with.

But in the heat of these incidents and the stress level, it's not uncommon for an officer to lose sensory perception about the weight of a gun, what’s in his or her hand. That is the last thing that an officer is focused on or even cares about. It's just something that just does not register in an officer's brain under these circumstances. And it's very common in stressful situations for officers not to be aware of, let's say … irrelevant factors … the color of the gun or the weight of the gun. It just doesn't come up on the perception level. They are focused on the immediate threat at hand.”

These changes, as you have described them, that were put into place after the Oscar Grant shooting, did they result in fewer mix ups?

“I believe so. There are no statistics that I know of, or studies, regarding this issue. Officers aren't required to go back and write a report, ‘Oh, by the way, I realized I pulled my firearm instead of taser.’ … I can only tell you just from experience and in my position that it's very, very rare to begin with. But as we know, it has happened probably about almost 10 times since tasers were introduced decades ago. So again, training would probably be the most important factor along with the changes that have been implemented as I discussed.

Keep in mind, we train far more frequently and far more intensively with firearms than we do with tasers for obvious reasons because it is a deadly weapon. Accuracy practice is paramount, as opposed to tasers. Taser is by definition a less lethal alternative. So there's not as much, say, emphasis in the training. And furthermore, taser cartridges are very expensive. They can cost up to 30 to 50 times more than a single bullet. And so discharging these devices in practice is cost prohibitive. There might be once-a-year training on practicing discharging a taser at a range."

Credits

Guest:

  • Ed Obayashi - Deputy Sheriff of the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office; advisor for the California Association of Police Training Officers