Inside one major police department’s effort to prevent Taser mistakes
Chris Audick/CNN

Inside one major police department’s effort to prevent Taser mistakes

For more than 5 seconds, footage from a body-worn camera shows former Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer Kimberly Potter gripping the handle of a weapon and pointing it at 20-year-old Daunte Wright as officers try to place the resisting suspect under arrest.

What happened next would end Wright’s life, change Potter’s forever and cast fresh doubt on the way some police officers in America are trained to handle stressful encounters.

“Oh, no!” a fellow officer cries out.

Potter is then heard on tape saying, “Holy sh*t! I just shot him.”

Wright, a Black motorist who was initially stopped by police for expired vehicle registration and later determined to have had an outstanding warrant, died shortly afterward from the round Potter fired from her semi-automatic service weapon.

Local prosecutors have charged the veteran officer in Wright’s death with first- and second-degree manslaughter. Her trial is set to begin in Minnesota on Wednesday. Potter has pleaded not guilty, and, if convicted, could face up to 15 years in prison.

Fatal ‘accidental discharge’

“The officer had the intention to deploy their Taser,” the city’s police chief said after the incident, “but instead shot Mr. Wright with a single bullet” in what the chief described as an “accidental discharge.”

The claim that the shooting was the result of Potter accidentally mixing up her service weapon with her department-issued stun gun appears to be corroborated on the police body camera footage released from the incident.

Just prior to the shooting, Potter is heard telling Wright, “I’ll tase you,” followed by “Taser, Taser, Taser,” before she fires her department-issued Glock 9mm handgun.

The Potter case is not the only recent instance in which an officer has been accused of mistaking a gun for a Taser.

In 2018, a Kansas officer said she meant to use a Taser on a man fighting with her partner but accidentally fired her gun instead. The suspect survived and the officer’s criminal case was dismissed.

In 2015, Eric Harris ran from Oklahoma police after an alleged gun sale when volunteer reserve deputy Robert Bates tried to use a Taser on him, but shot him dead. Bates received four years in prison for manslaughter.

Different by design

To understand how an officer could possibly mistake a firearm for a Taser — and for insight into how some police departments are trying to prevent similar incidents — CNN went inside the Los Angeles Police Department’s training academy.

In a classroom decorated to resemble a city street, recruits and seasoned officers alike routinely take part in role-playing and computer simulations geared toward testing a student’s judgment during stressful scenarios.

But even before officers face their first simulated suspect, they are provided with rigorous training on the mechanics of the Taser, how and when to deploy it, and where they are required to carry it on their uniform.

“My weapon is on my right side, my primary side,” Officer Allison Ashnault, a senior instructor, says as she points to her service weapon at our demonstration. She is right-handed and thus carries her pistol on her right hip. “It’s part of our policy that we have to carry our Taser on the opposite side.”

Other key differences are purposefully part of the design of the new Taser model carried by LAPD officers.

For example, a Glock service weapon — with its metal barrel and ammunition — is considerably larger and heavier than the plastic Taser. And while the pistol is jet black, the Taser, by contrast, is neon green.

Ashnault explains that the inherent design of each weapon, as well as separating the location where each device is worn on an officer’s body, are “intended to prevent weapon confusion.”

In addition to an overview of the Taser, the LAPD provides recruits with intense instruction in the type of force allowed in a particular situation.

When are LAPD officers permitted to deploy a Taser?

“It’s going to really be with somebody who is violent, that’s posing an immediate threat to maybe ourselves or to another citizen,” says Ashnault.

Capt. Jon Pinto, commanding officer of the LAPD’s training division, says that added component of the department’s new Taser policy — requiring the existence of a threat prior to use of stun guns — is why the city witnessed a 63% reduction in the number of officer Taser deployments between 2017 and 2020.

“That is also what the community is asking from us,” Pinto says. “They’re asking us to de-escalate. We’re only going to use that Taser when a suspect’s actions are violent.”

Preservation of life

With opening statements in Potter’s manslaughter trial set to begin Wednesday, one key question will be whether the jury finds that the charged cop is criminally liable even in an accidental shooting.

Defense attorney Paul Engh said during jury selection that Potter will testify. And in a filing last month, Potter’s attorneys said they might assert that her gun use was an innocent mistake, and that the use of the Taser was reasonable.

But law enforcement experts have raised serious questions about her intent to use a Taser in the first place against Wright, who was behind the wheel of a vehicle when the shooting occurred.

“If it does work, his body locks up. I don’t know how that helps,” said Sean Hendrickson, who teaches use of force in Washington state. “If you look at video and how close, she’s right inside the open door, at the edge, and those probes won’t spread far enough to achieve neuromuscular incapacitation and that’s the goal. If you achieved it, he’d be locked up in that seat. It’s hard to manipulate him. It’s confusing, tactically, what the end goal was with the Taser.”

While LAPD officials would not comment on the pending trial in Minnesota, Pinto said the department continually instructs its recruits on the importance of preserving life.

“Even if it’s a suspect, we want to use the least amount of force as possible,” he said. “We want to make sure that we give them every opportunity, if it’s practically safe, to not use lethal force, less lethal force or any force at all. There are times that we are able to do that, and there are times, obviously, depending on the circumstance, that the suspect’s actions dictate us to use some force to get them into custody.”

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