Experts doubt Tulsa deputy's claim he confused pistol with stun gun

Police experts question Tulsa deputy's claim that he confused stun gun and pistol in deadly shooting

The Tulsa, Okla., volunteer deputy involved in the shooting death of an unarmed man earlier this month demonstrated how he confused his pistol with a stun gun during an interview on the "Today" show Friday morning, but law enforcement experts are skeptical about his explanation.

Robert Charles Bates, a 73-year-old insurance executive, showed NBC's Matt Lauer during the interview where he normally carried his stun gun and handgun.

Asked to recreate his fatal clash with Eric Courtney Harris, 44, Bates said he kept his handgun in a hip holster, far away from the stun gun, which was normally kept closer to his chest.

On April 2, Tulsa County sheriff's deputies were chasing Harris, who had run away from officers trying to arrest him on suspicion of gun charges. Body camera video of the incident shows another deputy tackle Harris to the ground as Bates, who is standing offscreen, shouts "Taser!"

Instead of the stun gun, Bates produced his sidearm and fired one shot, mortally wounding Harris.

“I shot him; I’m sorry,” Bates can be heard saying on the video, which showed that he then dropped his gun on the ground.

Bates has been charged with manslaughter by local prosecutors, who say his negligence led to Harris' death. He faces up to four years in prison if convicted.

During the Friday interview, Bates apologized to Harris' family, calling the shooting "the second worst thing that ever happened" to him next to having cancer, before saying it was the number one worst thing. But he also contended that he is one of several law enforcement officials to make the tragic mistake of firing a deadly weapon when they meant to choose a nonlethal option.

“Well, let me say, this has happened a number of times around the country. I have read about it in the past. I thought to myself after reading several cases, I don’t understand how this can happen," Bates said. "You must believe me, it can happen to anyone.”

Law enforcement experts, however, told the Los Angeles Times they were skeptical of Bates' argument, especially since the 73-year-old said his stun gun is normally holstered far from his sidearm.

“It’s a muscle memory issue. Is it possible? Yeah, but only because it’s not impossible," said Sid Heal, a retired commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and chairman of strategy development for the National Tactical Officers Assn. "It’s not very plausible.”

While similar incidents, typically referred to as "cross-contamination" because of the confusion of lethal and nonlethal options, are not unheard of, Heal said they usually involve officers who carry both their firearm and stun gun at the hip. 

Officers carrying both weapons normally keep their lethal weapons holstered beneath their dominant hand, while the stun gun hangs to the opposite side of their body. The anxiety and panic of a life-or-death situation can sometimes cause a deadly mix-up.

“When you’re scared, or you’re not thinking clearly, you will go to your muscle memory, so they pull the wrong gun," he said.

Bates, however, knew the stun gun was not at his side.

The case is similar to a high-profile 2009 case in Oakland,  in which unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was fatally shot by a transit officer who said he accidentally grabbed his gun instead of his Taser.

The officer in that case, Johannes Mehserle, faced a second-degree murder charge but was ultimately convicted of a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter after a jury found the shooting was unintentional. He was sentenced to two years in prison.  Grant's killing was the basis of the 2013 film "Fruitvale Station."

Wayne Fisher, a professor of police policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said discussion of Bates' purported mistake is masking the more serious issue at play in Harris' death, which happened during a sting operation: Why did the sheriff's office allow an elderly, inexperienced volunteer to be involved in such an operation, especially if the target was a known felon, as Harris was?

"Police work is not a hobby to be engaged in during people’s free time or weekend hours," Fisher said. "It doesn’t just have to do with the training. It has to do with the experience of being in the profession full-time, day in and day out, year after year."

Fisher said there are plenty of tasks suited for reserve and auxiliary officers, but he described an operation like Harris' arrest as "the very activity that they should not be involved in.”

Concern over officers' confusing lethal and nonlethal weapons was stoked earlier this year, when the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department said it would consider employing "The Alternative," a device developed by a San Diego entrepreneur to lessen the lethality of a bullet.

The device, an attachment that captures a bullet inside a "less lethal" metal sphere but still carries the force of the projectile, was panned by experts because it can only be fired once.

If an officer shoots twice during a lethal force situation, as they are commonly trained to do, the second shot would release a live round.

Times staff writer Matt Pearce contributed to this report.

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