How could a veteran Minnesota police officer have mistaken her pistol for a Taser and fatally shot 20-year-old Daunte Wright? That, at least, is the local police chief's theory for what happened in the incident.
The answer to that question may have as much to do with what was going on in Brooklyn Center police Officer Kim Potter’s mind as with which weapon she was holding in her hand, experts told NBC News on Tuesday.
The Glock pistol that Potter was wielding when she fired the fatal shot at Wright on Sunday as he allegedly attempted to flee is black metal and almost a pound heavier than the neon-colored plastic Taser she may have believed she was brandishing as she was caught on a video yelling, “Taser! Taser! Taser!”
“A Glock is a very lightweight handgun,” said Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith, spokeswoman for the National Police Association and a retired 29-year veteran of the Naperville Police Department in Illinois. “But a Taser is heavier than you think.”
Still, while the grips on the Glocks and Tasers are made from a similar type of polymer, Glocks have a trigger safety while Tasers do not.
“They feel differently in your hands,” said Dennis Kenney, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and a former Florida police officer.
Also, most police departments, including Brooklyn Center, require that officers carry their guns on their dominant side and Tasers on the opposite side to lower the risk of confusing the two weapons, the experts said. That’s also what Axon, the maker of the Taser, recommends.
“You can tell from the video that the Brooklyn Center officers were doing that,“ Smith said.
So what’s more likely, Smith said, is that Potter experienced something called “slip and capture.”
“It’s not like she looked at her gun and thought it was a Taser,” Smith said. “It’s a horrible, horrible motor glitch that could happen in high-stress situations. I liken it to when you get into a rental car and go to start it up, you automatically reach for what’s familiar to you before realizing that you’re not in your car. The same issue could have happened here with the Taser.”
Maria Haberfeld, who is also a John Jay professor and co-author of “Use of Force Training in Law Enforcement: A Reality Based Approach,” said, “People underestimate the level of stress police officers experience during traffic stops.”
“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, Haberfeld said. “The longer you are on the job, the more layers of stress you accumulate. And errors of judgment happen when you are under stress.”
Kenney added, “I can only assume muscle memory is what happened here.”
“There is no indication that the officer intended to use deadly force,” the professor said. “That said, it goes nowhere near excusing this mistake.”
Wright, who was Black, was killed Sunday after police pulled him over for driving with expired plates, discovered there was a warrant out for his arrest, saw that he had an item dangling from his rearview mirror — which is also a violation — and tried to arrest him. When Wright tried to flee, Potter shot him in the chest, police said.
His death at the hands of a white police officer outraged the African American community and raised the already-high tensions in next-door Minneapolis, where former police Officer Derek Chauvin is on trial charged with second- and third-degree murder in the death of George Floyd, a Black man whose death last summer sparked nationwide protests.
Potter, who turned in her badge Tuesday and resigned after 26 years on the force, did not appear to be in a situation “where somebody was on top of her and she was fighting for her life,” Kenney said. “This was a situation in which it is questionable whether a Taser was even necessary.”
The tragic killing of Wright also points to how little training most officers get with the Taser, the experts said.
“Officer Potter was a seasoned officer, a well-trained officer,” Smith said. “But we don’t train as much with the Taser as we do with firearms.”
“Police training is in horrible shape in the United States,” Haberfeld said. “They don’t get refresher courses for years. And with the Taser, it’s just a few hours.”
Smith said the reason for this has a lot to do with costs.
“Each Taser cartridge is expensive and not every department has Taser simulators on which officers can train,” Smith said.
Wesley Skogan, a professor emeritus of political science at Northwestern University who specializes in policing, said officers “have a lot of stuff on their duty belt.”
“In addition to their guns and the Tasers, they carry pepper spray, a baton, handcuffs, sometimes a sap [blackjack], gloves, you name it,” Skogan said. “But when they receive training, the emphasis is on guns. Firearms are your best friend.”
As a result, when an officer is in a potentially dangerous situation, their instinct is to reach for their gun rather than the Taser, the experts said.
Fatal shootings where officers mix up handguns with Tasers are rare, “but this has happened at least 16 times in the last 10 years,“ Smith said.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that since 1999, when Taser introduced its first handgun-shaped model, there have been at least 11 such incidents. The earlier Tasers looked more like TV remote controls.
The best-known example is the New Years Day 2009 fatal shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer that was also videotaped and inspired the movie “Fruitvale Station.”
In that case, Officer Johannes Mehserle’s defense team said he mistakenly grabbed his gun instead of his Taser when he shot the prone Grant in the back. A jury convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter, and he was sentenced to two years in prison.
British researcher James Reason was one of the first to study what’s come to be known as “capture errors.” In his book “Human Error,” he gave a number of benign examples of this phenomenon like moving into a new home but writing your old address on an envelope or swearing off sugar in the evening and then sprinkling sugar on cornflakes the next morning.
After viewing the video footage of Wright’s last moments, the experts told NBC News they saw other deficiencies in how the traffic stop was handled.
“If this was a normal traffic stop, then why were there three officers there,” Kenney said. “And given what’s been going on, why make a traffic stop at all?”