‘Simple’ mistakes keep having deadly consequences

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By Terry Manning

The most heartbreaking thing about the death of Daunte Wright, the Black driver who was killed when a Minnesota police officer shot him as he attempted to flee a traffic stop, is that it was all because of a mistake.

I’m not talking about the alleged mistake of a hearing notice being sent to the wrong address and that’s why Wright had an outstanding warrant. A TikTok video with that allegation caught fire on social media last week before being disproved. The fact it was so readily believed is a testament to how so many in the general public believe the justice system is stacked against us.

And no, I’m not talking about the mistake claimed by former officer Kim Potter, a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center Police Department, who said she mistakenly drew her handgun on Wright instead of her stun device. I am willing to give most people the benefit of a doubt until proven otherwise, but her excuse is a hard one to swallow.

According to a 2016 CNN article written after a reserve deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shot a man to death, law enforcement experts recommend stun guns be carried on the officer’s non-dominant side. If an officer is right-handed, the stun gun would go on the left. For a left-handed officer, the stun gun would be carried on the right. It’s not supposed to be easy to grab the wrong one.

(When I mentioned this to a longtime friend, she had a great response: Why is the nonlethal option the alternative? Why can’t nonlethal force be the preferred option? The discussion around those questions will have to wait for another day, I guess.)

Steve Tuttle, then a vice-president for strategic communications at Taser International, told CNN the devices are designed to be easily distinguishable from firearms. Though some stun guns have a pistol-style grip, they are often brightly colored, partially or completely, most often in yellow. There is a substantial weight difference between the stun devices and service weapons; though the stun guns usually are larger, they tend to weigh appreciably less than handguns.

Taser, now called Taser CEW (Conducted Energy Weapons), offered training that recommended officers shout “Taser! Taser! Taser!” before using the guns. Porter did that before she shot Wright. She followed the training. You might think such a well trained officer, who was in the middle of training a younger officer when the shooting occurred, would have been trained well enough to recognize the difference between her stun gun and her handgun, but alas, she did not.

No, the mistake that matters most is the widely held notion that Tasers and similar devices should be considered nonlethal. Tuttle said in 2015 that Taser’s “conducted energy weapons” were not recommended for life-and-death situations, but that’s what those situations become all too often. Tasers are safer than a bullet in the head (or anywhere else) but they are not safe.

In 2017, Reuters news agency documented more than 1,000 deaths since 2000 of people who were stunned by police using Tasers. Out of hundreds of thousands of interactions between the public and the law enforcement in a year’s time that might not sound like a lot, but we’ve moved mountains to ease public sentiment over threats numerically less significant. 

It’s been a while since most of us tried to take a commercial flight, but passengers have to remove their shoes while going through airport security because of a single incident in December 2001 — right after 9/11 — where a passenger tried to detonate an explosive hidden in his shoe. 

Similar reactions happened after seven deaths in 1982 from people taking pills found in tampered bottles of Tylenol and most recently with the halt in use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine. In the latter case, six cases of severe blood clots were confirmed from the nearly 7.7 million doses that had been administered. That’s literally a fraction of the number of clots that typically occur (1 in 1,000 people), but we’re so much more easily spooked nowadays.

Still, deaths from “nonlethal” Tasers are generating little protest. Maybe that’s because of a U.S. News & World Report article that noted Black Americans are disproportionately represented among those deaths. Which makes sense, sadly, because Blacks are disproportionately represented in interactions between the police and the public. As are minorities in general.

That should be a mistake, too. It isn’t, but maybe that discussion also is better saved for another day.

Terry E. Manning lives and works in Savannah, Ga. He is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at teemanning@gmail.com.