How often do officers confuse a gun with a Taser?

Incidents in which police officers mistakenly fired their guns when they meant to draw their Tasers have not been common, but there have been several in recent years.

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 one of the most publicized cases, a white police officer with the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency said he had meant to fire his Taser when he fatally shot Oscar Grant III, who was Black, as Mr. Grant was lying facedown on the train platform on New Year’s Day in 2009.

In April, The New York Times reported that of 15 cases of so-called weapon confusion in the last two decades, a third of the officers were indicted, and three officers were found guilty, including the only two cases in which people were killed.

In Kimberly Potter’s trial, one of the prosecution’s expert witnesses testified that he was aware of fewer than 20 instances of what is called “weapons confusion” between a Taser and a gun since 2001.

The witness, Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies the use of force by police officers, said many police forces now train officers on how to avoid weapons confusion, which he called a “very well-known” risk.

To reduce the risk, Mr. Stoughton said, many law enforcement agencies advise officers to keep their Taser on the nondominant side of their police belt, as Ms. Potter’s was. And the companies that make stun guns have tried to make them appear more distinct from guns. Many Tasers are at least partially bright yellow, as Ms. Potter’s was.

In Ms. Potter’s case, prosecutors did not dispute that she drew her gun by mistake. They made a case to jurors that she acted so recklessly — given her experience and training — that she should be found guilty of manslaughter. The jury apparently agreed.

Leave a Reply