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Are police officers free and clear when they make deadly mistakes?

| May 12, 2021 | Social Justice |

On April 11, 2021, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, an unarmed African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer. She was a 26-year veteran of the force, but she claims to have mistaken her pistol for her taser.

On video, officer Kim Potter can be heard shouting “Taser! Taser! Taser!” before firing her pistol and striking Wright in the chest from close range.

Potter’s boss, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police chief Tim Gannon, described the homicide as being caused by an “accidental discharge.” It might be more accurate to say, “negligent discharge.” In any case, Gannon’s description of the event as “accidental” enraged many in the social justice arena.

This was especially true because Wright’s initial traffic stop involved either an expired plate or an air freshener dangling from his rear-view mirror. It’s not clear he should have been pulled over in the first place. Once he was, officers discovered he was wanted for a misdemeanor warrant, which prompted their attempt to arrest him. He attempted to avoid arrest, which led Potter to use what turned out to be deadly force against him.

Both Potter and Gannon have now resigned from the force, and Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. Some activists argue that Potter should face the more serious charge of murder.

Is it even possible that Potter mistook her pistol for a Taser?

Although this is rare and goes against training, other officers have mistaken their firearms for their Tasers in the past, with deadly results. In 2012, Americans for Effective Law Enforcement published an article detailing nine such incidents that took place between 2001 and 2009.

According to the Guardian, officers are often trained to holster Tasers on their “weak” sides to avoid confusion with their firearms, which they holster on their dominant sides. Former chief Gannon confirmed that Brooklyn Center’s officers are trained that way.

In addition, Tasers are much lighter, have shorter grips and are brightly colored. These characteristics are meant to reduce the chance of confusion.

Nevertheless, “Taser confusion” does occur, occasionally. Let’s assume for the moment that former officer Potter genuinely mistook her pistol for her Taser. If it was a mistake, does she have any liability?

Taser confusion is not a free pass in homicide cases

There is no standard charge for errors of this type. In other cases of Taser confusion, officers have faced a wide variety of criminal charges.

For example, when a San Francisco Bay Area rapid transit officer mistook his service weapon for a Taser in 2009, he killed a Black man named Oscar Grant. He was charged with murder but acquitted. Instead, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

In a 2015 incident, a Tulsa, Oklahoma volunteer sheriff’s deputy killed an unarmed Black man named Eric Harris. After claiming he had mistaken his weapon for a Taser, the officer was convicted of second-degree manslaughter.

In 2018, a Lawrence, Kansas, officer was charged with reckless aggravated battery after mistaking her gun for a Taser. The charges were dismissed.

In 2019, the same thing happened to a Pennsylvania officer, who killed an unarmed man in a holding cell. The district attorney accepted his explanation that he had honestly mistaken his weapon for a Taser and found the homicide “was neither justified, nor criminal, but was excused.”

This lack of a uniform response is problematic. Even if we accept Potter’s assertion that she fired her gun by mistake, she was at least negligent in handling her weapon. Shouldn’t officers be held to a higher standard when their negligence causes the death of an innocent person?

Certainly, Daunte Wright’s family is unsatisfied with the former police chief’s conclusion that Daunte’s death was an accident.

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