Before Daunte Wright, the Black man who was fatally shot by a white officer Sunday in Minnesota, there was the remarkably similar case of Oscar Grant.
Early on the first day of 2009, Grant, also a Black man, was shot and killed by a transit police officer while lying facedown on a platform at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California. His story was adapted into the 2014 film “Fruitvale Station,” directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan.
Grant, 22, and other passengers were pulled off a packed BART train after fighting was reported as New Year’s Eve revelers were shuttling home after midnight. Bay Area Rapid Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle shot Grant in the back as another officer pinned his knee on Grant’s head.
At the time, attorneys for Mehserle said he had mistaken his handgun for a Taser stun gun. Authorities in Minnesota are offering the same explanation.
“As I watched the video and listened to the officer’s commands, it is my belief the officer had the intention to deploy their Taser but instead shot Mr. Wright with a single bullet,” Police Chief Tim Gannon told reporters Monday. Gannon resigned Tuesday.
Axon, the company behind Taser energy weapons, said the devices have a different grip and feel and are lighter than firearms. They are also offered in yellow to differentiate them from guns, an Axon spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday.
Based on recommendations by use-of-force experts, Axon suggests that Tasers “be placed on an officer’s non-dominant side, and firearm on the dominant side,” the company said.
“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,” the statement said. “Although very rare, there have been isolated incidents of an officer accidentally using their firearm instead of their Taser energy weapon.”
John Burris, the lawyer who represented Grant’s family, said he was “shocked” at how officers handled Sunday’s incident, because Wright had been stopped “for a minor issue.”
“For a Taser to be used in this situation was not appropriate, and the mistake that was made is inexcusable,” he said Tuesday.
Wright, 20, died after he was shot in the chest by Brooklyn Center police Officer Kim Potter, a 26-year veteran of the force. In a statement Tuesday, Law Enforcement Labor Services, the police union, said she had resigned.
Video released by police appeared to show Wright getting out of his car after he was stopped for a traffic violation. He then got back in as officers tried to apprehend him on an outstanding misdemeanor warrant that they discovered after they pulled him over.
In the video, a woman could be heard shouting “Taser!” before Wright was shot. A woman’s voice could then be heard saying, “Holy s— I just shot him,” as the car pulled away, police said. Brooklyn Center is a suburb of Minneapolis about 14 miles north of where George Floyd died last year.
The issue of mixing up a Taser and a handgun took center stage after Grant’s death was recorded on cellphone video and widely shared on social media, Burris said.
Mehserle, who was convicted in 2010 of involuntary manslaughter, said at his trial that he thought he had fired his Taser, not his gun. Mehserle was released in 2011 after having served 11 months.
Burris said that after Mehserle’s trial, several police departments adopted new training guidelines and protocols to ensure that officers reached for the correct weapon, which could be the “difference between life and death.”
“I haven’t seen any case like this since Oscar’s,” Burris said. “There was a lot of attention given in funding and training manuals that Tasers are of a different color and size and are now typically supposed to be carried on the opposite side of your gun handle.”
Two other cases of officers’ fatally mistaking their handguns for stun guns have gained national attention. Eric Harris, a Black man, was fatally shot in 2015 by a white volunteer sheriff’s deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The deputy, Robert Bates, said he thought he had grabbed his stun gun when he fired at Harris, who was being held down by other officers. Bates apologized for the killing and said mixing up a stun gun and handgun is a problem for law enforcement.
“This has happened a number of times around the country,” he said. “You must believe me, it can happen to anyone.”
Bates, who is white, was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison.
In 2002, Everardo Torres was fatally shot while in handcuffs in the back of a police car. Madera, California, police Officer Marcy Noriega said she was trying to subdue Torres and thought she had reached for her Taser. Instead, she grabbed her handgun and killed Torres after firing. Noriega was never charged.
Burris said Sunday’s shooting brings up questions about how more police training and funding does little to curb police violence.
“Crisis presents opportunity,” Burris said. “This might be a real opportunity to take an inward look at the police department and ask what role they actually serve in the community.”