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Kimberly Potter trial sparks questions about the effectiveness of police using Tasers


Former police officer Kimberly Potter is on trial right now in Minnesota for manslaughter. During a traffic stop in the suburb of Brooklyn Center, Potter shot and killed 20-year-old Black man Daunte Wright using her gun while indicating she was using a Taser. And we should say there's audio of that encounter in just a moment. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the trial has revived doubts about Tasers, which were introduced more than two decades ago as an alternative to deadly force.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: In this trial, neither side is arguing that Potter meant to shoot her gun during that roadside struggle with Daunte Wright.


KIMBERLY POTTER: I'll tase you. Taser. Taser. Taser.

KASTE: In the videos, the moment that Potter realizes that she used her gun, she collapses with despair.


POTTER: I grabbed the wrong [expletive] gun. I shot him. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

KASTE: So prosecutors are not disputing that she mixed up her weapons. The question is, why? Why would she think she was holding her Taser, which was yellow in black and plastic? One possible explanation, says Paul Taylor, is cognitive slip. That's when people use one object thinking they're holding another.

PAUL TAYLOR: It happens when our focus of attention is on something else.

KASTE: Taylor's assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, where he researches how cops make split-second decisions. He's counted 19 cases of this kind of weapons confusion since the late '90s, and he thinks it's time for Tasers to be redesigned.

TAYLOR: If you do everything that you would do to fire a Taser with most duty handguns, the duty handgun is going to discharge. It shouldn't be something that activates with the trigger finger.

KASTE: Axon, the company that makes Tasers, said in an email that it has tried other designs, but they're not as effective. It says, weapons confusion is relatively rare, but it also tells police departments to teach officers about the risk. That's something that Potter's lawyer asked her about when she took the stand on Friday.


EARL GRAY: Was there ever any actual training about weapons confusion as you remember it?

POTTER: No. It would be mentioned in training, but it wasn't something we physically trained on.

KASTE: And that's a common complaint. Taser training is mostly PowerPoints with little hands-on practice. In contrast, officers spend hours on the firing range drawing and shooting their guns. Researchers say that, under pressure, people often default to those more practiced skills. Paul Taylor did a study recently testing police officers' reactions in a simulator. He tested how good they were at switching between the two weapons, and he found that they were twice as fast switching to guns as they were switching to Tasers. And there's a bigger question - does the very existence of the Taser sometimes lead cops to escalate situations?


SETH STOUGHTON: Taser use is inappropriate under those circumstances.

KASTE: In the trial, the prosecutor's use of force expert Seth Stoughton said that, even if Potter had used her Taser, it wouldn't have been appropriate against a suspect who was halfway inside his car trying to get away.


STOUGHTON: If the Taser had not been successful in achieving neuromuscular incapacitation, then it just resulted in pain. It's highly likely to just incentivize Mr. Wright to flee, the exact opposite of what it was apparently intended to address.

KASTE: The thing about Tasers is that they often fail, 30% to 40% of the time in some cities. To improve their chances, cops often get closer to a subject before they deploy the Taser. And when it fails, Taylor says, they can often find themselves committed to a fight that they might've avoided.

TAYLOR: It changes behavior. It's just not in the direction that the officers thought. And the person either speeds up their approach to the officers or speeds up their kind of pressure on the situation and officers end up shooting them.

KASTE: Axon points to all the times that Tasers have saved lives. It claims that they've saved a quarter of a million people from death or serious injury. Police use of force expert Ed Flosi says he's seen some of that in practice.

ED FLOSI: Based on the cases that I review, there are several cases where the Taser actually prevented the situation from escalating and/or from officers having to go hands-on, which is always very dangerous with somebody who is extremely violent.

KASTE: But what we don't know is how many times Tasers have escalated incidents toward the use of guns. As American police are being told to emphasize de-escalation, researchers say it's important to understand the effect of Tasers and to design police training accordingly. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.