While Not Common, Police Officers Have Mistaken Pistols for Tasers, Sometimes with Deadly Outcomes

One of the most famous cases happened in 2009 in Oakland, Calif., where a transit officer shot and killed Oscar Grant III.,

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While not common, officers have mistaken pistols for Tasers, sometimes with deadly outcomes.

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April 12, 2021, 8:47 p.m. ET

Chief Tim Gannon of the Brooklyn Center Police Department referred to the killing of Daunte Wright as an
Chief Tim Gannon of the Brooklyn Center Police Department referred to the killing of Daunte Wright as an “accidental discharge.”Credit…Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

While not common, instances of police officers accidentally firing a pistol when they meant to draw their Tasers, as the police in a Minneapolis suburb said happened on Sunday when an officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, are not entirely unusual, either.

In 2018, a rookie Kansas police officer mistakenly shot a man who was fighting with a fellow officer. In 2019, a police officer in Pennsylvania shouted “Taser!” before shooting an unarmed man in the torso. And in 2015, a former Oklahoma reserve deputy killed an unarmed man when he accidentally grabbed his handgun.

Ed Obayashi, a California-based expert on the use of force by law enforcement, said that with appropriate training, it should be difficult for officers to confuse a gun with a Taser. “But unfortunately it does happen — this is not the first time and it won’t be the last,” he said, referring to the fatal shooting of Mr. Wright.

In a 2012 article published in the law journal Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Capt. Greg Meyer, a retired Los Angeles Police Academy instructor, documented nine similar instances between 2001 and 2009.

One of the most famous cases happened in 2009 in Oakland, Calif., when a white Bay Area transit officer shot and killed a Black man on New Year’s Day. The man, Oscar Grant III, was unarmed and lying facedown when the officer shot him. The officer was acquitted on charges of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter but was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in prison.

Scott A. DeFoe, a retired sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, said most police departments require officers to wear their Taser on their nondominant side, to prevent the officer from confusing it with their pistol. Tasers are often also marked with bright colors to distinguish them from pistols, and the grips are typically different from those of firearms.

“If you train enough, you should be able to tell,” he said.

In most cases, Deputy Obayashi said, the confusion occurs when officers carry both weapons on the same side of their body, or holster their stun guns on the opposite side of their body in such a way that it is easier for them to reach across with a dominant hand and cross-draw without deliberating.

In six of the nine cases from the 2012 article, including the shooting in Oakland, the officers carried both weapons on the same, “strong-hand” side of their bodies.

In several cases, the officers did not serve much jail time, or any. In the Pennsylvania case, for example, the district attorney said the officer violated a policy requiring officers to wear their Taser on the opposite side of their firearm. Still, he said the officer “did not possess the criminal mental state required to be guilty of a crime under state law.”

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