Mistaking Handguns for Tasers

(Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

My reaction to the tragic death of Daunte Wright in a Minneapolis suburb due to excessive police force was pretty much the same as Phil’s: A trained police officer’s mistaking a handgun for a taser seems inconceivable. It has nevertheless happened a few times.

The instances are statistically negligible: A 2020 analysis claimed there had been 16 such cases (though a couple appear to be dubious) over 20 years, during which there have been millions of taser uses by police officers. A 2015 Christian Science Monitor report related a 2012 study that documented nine such cases at that time, out of over 2.7 million taser uses since 2001.

It is an extraordinarily rare occurrence, and an excruciatingly tragic one when it results in death or severe injury.

Some tasers have similar design — not exactly similar but roughly similar — to handguns, which obviously helps with some aspects of training in how to operate them. But the different weapons do not feel the same, they do not weigh the same (tasers can be considerably lighter), and they do not operate the same way. To avoid the minute potential of confusion, cops are typically trained to carry the taser on the weak-hand side (the firearm is on the strong side). The aforementioned 2015 report recounts that in some of the documented cases of mistaken discharge, the taser was carried on the same strong-hand side as, and thus close to, the firearm.

This kind of mistake does not happen with anything close to the frequency that would allow portraying it as a reasonable or excusable error. That is a separate issue from the question of whether it can be an honest mistake. It can, but it is grossly negligent and criminally actionable, nonetheless.

There is already some commentary, similar to a narrative we have heard during the murder trial of Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd, that the excessive force is especially inexcusable in light of the comparative lack of severity of the criminal conduct that prompted detention. In the case of Daunte Wright, that argument seems even less persuasive: A court had issued an arrest warrant for Wright, and he was allegedly attempting to flee to avoid execution of the warrant. If an offense is not serious enough to merit issuance of an arrest warrant, a judge should not issue one. If one is issued, then it is not the police officer’s place to second-guess the court — particularly if the suspect resists and attempts to flee, which are separate crimes.

That said, the police must effect an arrest lawfully. It goes without saying that what tragically happened to Mr. Wright was not lawful.

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