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Law enforcement experts say Robert Bates may indeed have made a heat-of-the-moment mistake when he fired his gun instead of his Taser and killed a man in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
But they say that still does not resolve questions about his training or why Bates, an insurance executive who volunteered as a reserve sheriff’s deputy, was using force in the first place.
On Friday, Bates offered an apology for shooting and killing Eric Harris, who had bolted from an undercover sting operation, on April 2. Bates said it was “No. 1 on my list of things in my life that I regret.”
He also demonstrated, in an interview on NBC’s TODAY, that he kept the two weapons far apart on his body — the Taser tucked in his protective vest, a .357 revolver on his right side.
Asked how he could make such a mistake, he said: “You must believe me: It can happen to anyone.”
Maki Haberfeld, a department chair at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that high-stress situations can change the way people behave, including by impairing vision and cognitive function.
“People under stress make wrong decisions. We know this from various sciences,” she said in an interview. “This is not something that emerges as a justification for this particular case.”
“What I don’t understand,” she said, “is why he was in this situation to begin with.”
The shooting came after a sting operation in which Harris had allegedly arranged to sell a gun to undercover sheriff’s officers. Harris was shot after a foot chase.
In a video of the confrontation, Bates shouts, “Taser! Taser” before firing his gun and hitting Harris, who was pinned to the ground by officers.
“I shot him! I’m sorry!” Bates can be heard saying.
Bates has been charged with second-degree manslaughter and could get as much as four years in prison if convicted. Philip Stinson, who teaches criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said the charge was appropriate.
“I think it’s negligence. I don’t think it’s recklessness,” he said. “I think it was negligent training within the department.”
He added: “I look at that video, I don’t think it was appropriate for him to use the Taser. I think it was for sport.”
The Tulsa World has reported that Bates was given credit for training he never completed and gun certifications he never received. It also reported, citing anonymous sources, that supervisors were transferred after they refused to sign off on his training. NBC News has not independently confirmed the report.
Sheriff’s officials have dismissed that report as rumor, and Bates insisted on Friday that he was fully certified and had the papers to prove it.
The sheriff’s department has not released detailed training records, and it said Thursday that it would have no further comment on the case.
An outside consultant for the department last week called the shooting “excusable homicide,” and a report released by the sheriff’s department suggested a phenomenon called “slips and capture,” in which the brain makes a mistake by defaulting to learned behavior.
Stinson, from Bowling Green State University, said that such a theory would not be admissible in most courts because it has not been subjected to peer review, does not have a known error rate and is not generally accepted as science.
“There’s no literature out there. There’s nothing,” he said in an interview.
He said he knew of only one criminal case in which it has been used as a defense — the 2009 shooting of a man in Oakland, California, by a transit police officer who reached for his gun instead of his Taser.
The officer in that case was charged with murder and convicted of manslaughter. The incident became the subject of the film "Fruitvale Station."
In his interview on TODAY on Friday, Bates rejected suggestions that he was rewarded with the reserve job and got to “play cop” because he donated money and equipment to the sheriff’s department and is a friend of the sheriff’s.
“That is unbelievably unfair,” he said.
When he realized that he had fired his gun, Bates said, he thought, “Oh, my God, what has happened?”
“The laser light is the same on each weapon,” he said. “I saw the light and I squeezed the trigger and realized I dropped the gun. This was not an intentional thing. I had no desire to take anyone’s life.
Ken Cooper, a firearms instructor who teaches criminal justice at the State University of New York, Ulster, said he believed that Bates made a mistake and was “cross-circuited.”
But he said that the grips on the two weapons are different — much shorter on the Taser, even though they weigh about the same — and that proper preparation for stress situations should have allowed him to recognize the distinction.
“It tells me that there’s a lack of training,” he said.