Who Knows the Difference between a Gun and a Taser?
May 19, 2015
Robert Bates, a Sheriff’s Department volunteer deputy, fatally shot a suspect who was apparently resisting arrest when Bates fired his handgun instead of his Taser. Bates claimed that he intended to shoot the suspect, Eric Harris, with his Taser worn on his chest, but instead shot him with his handgun, worn on his right hip.
As some of the facts surrounding the shooting became known, much of the public expressed doubt that a trained policeman could mistake a Taser for a handgun. Instead, some of the public offered explanations for Deputy Bates “mistake” included: a deliberate act; a lack of training; Bates’ advanced age of 73; and the inappropriateness of a reserve deputy being engaged in in an undercover operation targeting a suspected gun and drug dealer.
All of these explanations, however, assumed this shooting was another in the series of unarmed African Americans who have unnecessarily met their death at the hands of white policemen. These shootings--including Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Lavar Jones in Columbia, South Carolina, and Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina—involved initial stops of black suspects for minor infractions of the law and rapid escalations into fatal incidents. In the Harris shooting the initial encounter with police was explicitly planned. A dangerous suspect who was seeking to flee and was, apparently, unintentionally shot.
The pattern of previous shootings, however, involved a measure of intentionality that seems missing from the Harris shooting if it was due to incompetence. Thus, the key question in determining whether this shooting is another in the series of questionable white police shootings of unarmed African Americans is how Bates came to shoot Eric Harris. Is it really possible that Bates mistook his handgun for a Taser?
Pilots, for example, practice performing a sequence of acts that require skill until the sequence becomes automatic. A sequence of automatic skills can be completed quickly and efficiently and these skills then don’t require cognitive resources. However, such skills are vulnerable to habit capture—the inability to stop or change a habitual sequence of actions once it has been started. Habit capture has been found to be at least one of the causes of deadly aviation accidents, none of which were presumably due to intentional acts by the pilots.
The Limits of Expertise: Rethinking Pilot Error and the Causes of Airline Accidents.
By RK Dismukes, Benjamin Berman, and Loukia D. Loukopoulos
A sequence of automatic skills can be completed quickly and efficiently and these skills then don’t require cognitive resources. However, such skills are vulnerable to habit capture—the inability to stop or change a habitual sequence of actions once it has been started.
Besides habit capture in aviation, full-time law enforcement officers who were younger than Bates have mistakenly used their handgun when intending to use their Taser on a suspect. Perhaps the most notable of these incidents, highlighted in the movie Fruitvale Station involved the death of Oscar Grant in 2009. A BART officer, Johannes Mehserle, attempting to tase Grant, mistakenly pulled his handgun and killed Grant. The trial court, while conceding that the officer had mistakenly shot Grant, nonetheless found the Officer Mehserle guilty; his conviction was affirmed on appeal.
In at least eight other cases, officers have been found to have mistakenly shot suspects while intending to tase suspects. Analyses of these incidents have found that most of these incidents (5 of 8) occurred when the Taser was worn on the same side of the officer’s body as his or her handgun. Habit capture can still occur when the Taser is worn on the opposite side, as was Officer Bate’s. To further reduce the risk of habit capture, some experts have recommended that Tasers should be both worn on the opposite side, drawn with the non-handgun hand, and then transferred to the officer’s shooting hand.
In at least eight other cases, officers have been found to have mistakenly shot suspects while intending to tase suspects.
Considerations such as whether Officer Bates should have been involved in an operation of a suspected gun dealer, even in a backup capacity (apparently Harris ran toward the location where Bates was stationed), his age, and training may impact both criminal and civil liabilities. This shooting, however, seems different than the shootings of other African American suspects by white policemen.
Perhaps, more important, however, is the nature of Officer Bates training, as well as that of other officers. Currently, police officers receive much more training with their handguns than their Tasers; and it is not clear how much training they receive in switching from a shooting to a tasing sequence. While the number of incidents involving errors in the use of handguns instead of Tasers seems small, that number could be reduced with different training.