The Brooklyn Center police on Monday said the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright came by way of a rare mistake: An officer drew a service pistol when she thought she was holding a Taser.
A gun-Taser mix-up by a police officer has been blamed for a handful of deaths in the U.S. — at least three others nationwide — since Tasers with a pistol-grip were first introduced more than two decades ago.
Most of the cases did not lead to criminal charges against the police officer. A criminal complaint for the Brooklyn Center case may be filed as early as this week, according to Washington County Attorney Pete Orput.
At a news conference on Monday during which body camera footage of the Sunday afternoon shooting was shown, Brooklyn Center police Chief Tim Gannon said he believed the officer — later identified as department veteran Kimberly A. Potter — meant to use her Taser.
"I'm not in the mind of the officer," Gannon said during the news conference. "I can only see what you're seeing. I can couple that with much of the training that I have received and that's why I'm believing it to be an accidental discharge."
In footage of the moments before Potter shot Wright, she can be heard shouting "Taser!" three times, the department's standard warning to the target and bystanders that a conducted energy device is about to be deployed.
Moments after the shot, in apparent shock, the officer can be heard saying, "Holy shit, I just shot him."
According to press and court filings reviewed by the Star Tribune, similar shootings have happened at least 11 times nationwide since 1999 — the year when Taser introduced the handgun-shaped Advanced Taser M-26. Earlier Tasers were shaped more like a TV remote control, and an early case hinged on the change.
In 2001, Sacramento police officer Thomas Schrum shot Steven Yount once in the buttock as Yount fought with officers who were attempting to place him under arrest. Yount lived, and Schrum said afterward that he thought he had drawn his Taser.
It was a novel case at the time: Taser had only recently introduced its Advanced Taser M26 model with a pistol grip, a change the company said was driven by customer preference.
The Taser M-26 was later replaced by other models that are also handgun-shaped, and nearly all departments use such models.
Inquiries with the Brooklyn Center Police Department seeking information about which model of Taser the department uses were not immediately returned Monday.
The Taser can fire two barbed darts that are connected to thin wires. The weapon delivers an electric current that incapacitates muscles. When it works, the weapon makes people fall down with their bodies locked in a rigid state.
They can be easily distinguished from handguns, according to a statement Monday by the maker of Tasers, Axon Enterprise.
Tasers have different grips and are lighter than pistols, and the weapons have an LED screen that lights up when the safety is turned off. Some Tasers are bright yellow, but the weapon is also available in black.
"Axon also specifically warns of the possibility of weapon confusion and provides training recommendations to mitigate against it. Based on recommendations by use of force experts, Axon recommends that a TASER energy weapon be placed on an officer's non-dominant side, and firearm on the dominant side," the statement read.
The Brooklyn Center Police Department policy manual says officers must complete training before using the Taser, and must carry it in an approved holster and on the opposite hip as their firearm. The manual does not dictate which side of the body officers must wear the Taser, although chief Gannon on Monday said officers are trained to wear the Taser according to which hand is dominant.
It's not unusual for police departments to instruct officers to wear the Taser on their non-dominant side so that they must reach across their body to draw it from its holster. A righthanded person, for example, would wear the Taser on their left hip.
The Brooklyn Center police manual says all Tasers must be clearly and distinctly marked to differentiate them from the officer's firearm. Officers are also required to undergo annual proficiency training for the Taser.
Most cases where officers have mistaken a service pistol for a Taser — including a previous case in Minnesota — have not been fatal. Most have resulted in injuries.
In 2002, a Rochester, Minn., police officer shot a man in the back while trying to subdue him, later telling investigators that he had mistakenly drawn his Glock service pistol when he wanted to use a Taser. The man who was shot, Christofar Atak, survived with a wound to his lower back.
Police officer Gregory Siem was not criminally charged, and Atak later won a $900,000 settlement in a civil suit.
In three cases that did prove fatal — Everardo Torres in Madera, Calif., in 2002; Oscar Grant III in Oakland, Calif., in 2009; and Eric Courtney Harris in Tulsa, Okla., in 2015 — the officers involved said they had intended to use their Taser, not their service weapon.
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329