The video of 20-year-old Daunte Wright being shot by a police officer in Minnesota depicts #17. That’s 17 known times an officer in the U.S. has mistakenly fired a gun instead of a taser, injuring or killing the person on the other side of the barrel.
While cases like these are extremely rare when they do occur they almost always fuel cries of police criticism and lack of proper training
But Paul Taylor, assistant professor of criminal justice in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver believes the way to mitigate these rare cases of weapon confusion boils down to a matter of muscle memory and physical change.
“We can’t train our way of it. What we need is a design change,” said Taylor, a former law enforcement officer who’s calling for a more ergonomic taser design that looks and operates less like a gun.
Last August, Taylor wrote an article about it on thecrimereport.org, a non-profit dedicated to reporting news and research on criminal justice-related issues.
“We hear from officers that we don’t have a lot of attentional resources, we have to make very rapid decisions. If this is the work environment officers face, then we need to design tools that facilitate that work environment and anticipate these errors rather than rely on officers being perfect all the time,” Taylor said.
It’s a call for action, which some law enforcement agencies in Florida agree with. The Putnam and Wakulla County Sheriff’s Departments told us in an email they would support a redesign. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd also supports redesigning the tasers currently used by law enforcement agencies.
“We can never redesign or design any tool that 1000% foolproof. But, if we can redesign it to make it a little bit easier Judd said. “Make it a different color and instead of holding it like a gun we have to put 3 fingers on it, then you obviously know this thing takes three fingers, a gun takes one finger, that’s my idea,” he said.
Judd said earlier this week he even called the CEO of Axon, the maker of tasers used by most law enforcement in the U.S., to talk about the potential need for a redesign. On the company’s website, we found three models of tasers for professional use, in even a few colors including models that are all black.
“That obviously can be a real problem because the firearms are black as well. That’s why I left a message, we can do better,” Judd said. He has yet to hear back from Axon’s CEO.
In a statement, Axon’s press team responded to our questions about redesign stating:
Axon's mission is to protect life, and we prioritize the safety of our customers and the communities they serve above all else, which is why we remain committed to developing technology and training for public safety. The tragic death of Daunte Wright is still being investigated; as such, we cannot comment on the specifics of the incident. However, we understand this incident may have involved the accidental use of a firearm rather than a TASER® energy weapon, which we can generally address. Numerous independent, peer-reviewed studies have established TASER energy weapons as being the safest and most effective weapon available to law enforcement officers. However, like all use of force weapons, they are not risk-free. Although very rare, there have been isolated incidents of an officer accidentally using their firearm instead of their TASER energy weapon. Over the years Axon has implemented numerous features and training recommendations to reduce the possibility of these incidents occurring. This includes building TASER energy weapons to look and feel different than a firearm: a TASER device has a different grip and feel and is lighter than a firearm; is offered in yellow to contrast a black firearm; a LED control panel lights up when the safety is taken off, and it is contained in a holster that is different and separate from the officer’s firearm. In response to the design of our TASER energy weapons; we are constantly improving our technology, but we have nothing new to announce at this time.
Others aren’t convinced a redesign will do much to a statistic that is already so low.
Stuart Kaplan, a former FBI Agent who now works as an attorney specializing in law enforcement excessive force cases, believes the key is in training, repetition, and muscle memory. Tasers are supposed to be positioned on the non-dominant side of an officer's belt forcing an officer to reach over with their dominant hand in the even they have to use it. He suggests training officers so they only discharge the taser using their non-dominant hand. But he also believes nothing can fully stop human error and mistakes.
“That taser is not going to prevent someone from making the mistake of drawing their firearm,” he said. “The only thing I can envision is to invent a firearm that’s able to read the situation and be able to say. ‘oh no police officer, that’s not a lethal scenario go back and transition to your less-lethal weapon’ and obviously that’s not something that’s plausible,” Kaplan said.
“Officers with 20 plus years all the way to new officers are dealing with this and we’re seeing these errors occur in all positions on the belt, I think it’s time we take another look at it,” said Professor Taylor.