By Terry Baxter, Law Enforcement and Safety Specialist

On April 11, 2021, Daunte Wright was fatally shot by Officer Kimberly Potter, Brooklyn City Police Department during a traffic stop and attempted arrest on an outstanding warrant in Minnesota. While Wright struggled with officers, Officer Potter verbally indicated she would tase Wright if he did not comply. Wright continued to struggle and in the process, Potter believed she had pulled her TASER, but she mistakenly had pulled her duty weapon instead and fired the weapon resulting in Wright’s fatal injury.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension launched an investigation and based on the results and review of that investigation, a criminal complaint filed against Officer Potter stated Wright’s death was caused by “her culpable negligence” whereby she “created an unreasonable risk and consciously took a chance of causing death or great bodily harm,” to Wright.

December 23, 2021, Potter was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and second-degree manslaughter. Officer Potter was a 26-year law enforcement veteran at the time the shooting occurred.

At least 18 officers have made the same mistake in the past two decades, sometimes with deadly outcomes according to data collected by John Peters, a former police officer who served as an expert witness in a prominent weapon confusion case in 2009.

There is a lot of speculation by many experts as to why these events occur, some will say it is due to the design of the TASER and others will say it relates to training and “motor memory” or some may say it is a direct result of both.

TASER manufactures recommend officers carry a TASER in a separate holster from their gun and on the officer’s non-dominant side, with the duty weapon positioned on the dominant side. Most policies I have reviewed including NIRMA’s model policy outlines this as well and the common practice I see among most of our sheriff offices is the gun and TASER are completely separated, very similar to the way Officer Potter carried her TASER and her duty weapon.

So how does this confusion even happen? During training exercise, do we practice drawing the TASER from the holster? Or it is in ready position during the deployment exercise. Maybe we should be looking at performing reaction hand draws or cross draws with the TASER to reduce the possibility of reaching for the wrong weapon. Think about it, during actual shooting exercise and weapon training officer’s draw their duty weapon from their holster so why isn’t the same components of training being added to TASER trainings? Trainings need to be as realistic as possible.

Extensive research has gone into understanding why human error occurs, and no matter what expert opinion is, it will never be enough to prevent mistakes from occurring entirely. So, the need is to try and mitigate human error the best way we can. Look we are all human, we have, and we will continue to make mistakes, it is unfortunately a part of life.

Training officer’s mental and physical thought process and reaction involved in a high stress task may help reduce the frequency of an error as well as the impact of the mistake, especially during critical events.
Though noted in various studies on TASER and weapon confusion, events like these may not occur every day, but how do your truly know. The only events usually reported are the ones where a duty weapon was discharged. I don’t know many officers that put in a police report “I mistakenly pulled my duty weapon when I intended to pull out the TASER” . So how about the times a duty weapon mistakenly cleared leather and not fired, when actually, the officer thought they were reaching for the TASER?

Understanding human performance under stress is extremely critical and there is a need to ensure that training exercises are effective and not simply considered “routine”. Police1 posted an article from David Blake, titled three recommendations to mitigate TASER/firearm capture errors, recommendations from the article indicated the following categories for consideration:

  • Re-design of the TASER
  • Design and placement of the holster
  • Training

TASER has already tried to correct the confusion, by offering the TASER in a different color, looking at changing the design and operational mechanics as well as recommending the TASER and duty weapon be separated during carry. But even with all these standards, the human factor still remains.

Enhanced training is a critical component at least in my opinion, you respond how your trained, if training is inadequate, it will show, especially during your response during a high-risk critical task which also adds stress in the mix, eventually mistakes being made will eventually catch up with you and/or your agency.

Look, throughout my career I have made mistakes, fortunately for me those mistakes were not a life changing event, hopefully any mistakes or errors made moving forwarded will be minor and not carry severe consequences such as it did with Officer Potter’s experience.

The one constant foundation to reducing risk in your agency is training. Enhanced training will not only ensure your officers are up to date on state statues and case laws, but you need to also ensure they are ready to successful respond to any thing that comes their way. More importantly…Officer’s also need to want to learn and attend trainings when offered.

This is not just another job, it is a profession, a profession that requires a lot attention to detail and a commitment, be proactive, limit agency exposures by ensuring you and your agency are competent and continually trained.