Did the cop who shot Daunte Wright experience "slip and capture?"

AP Photo/John Minchillo

The battle lines for the court of public opinion seem to have been quickly drawn in the matter of the shooting of motorist Daunte Wright by former Officer Kim Potter, who resigned from the force yesterday, along with the Chief of Police. The Brooklyn Center, Minnesota Police Department believes that the shooting was a tragic accident resulting from Potter mistaking her Glock handgun for her Taser. Meanwhile, the Wright family has retained the same lawyer who represents the family of George Floyd. He held a press conference yesterday where he declared that the Wrights are not buying that story and basically saying that Potter is just another killer cop.

The body camera footage of the shooting certainly makes a strong, but not absolute case for this being an accident. Potter is heard yelling “taser” three times before firing and sounds seriously shocked to realize she had just shot Wright. But even with the video being available, many people are still wondering how a law enforcement officer with that much experience could possibly have mistaken her Glock for a brightly colored Taser. NBC News spoke to some subject matter experts about this question and came up with an answer I’d never heard of. It’s possible that in a moment of intense stress, Potter experienced a phenomenon known as “slip and capture.” Here’s a brief explanation of what that means.

So what’s more likely, Smith said, is that Potter experienced something called “slip and capture.”

“It’s not like she looked at her gun and thought it was a Taser,” [National Police Association spokeswoman Sgt. Betsy Brantner] Smith said. “It’s a horrible, horrible motor glitch that could happen in high-stress situations. I liken it to when you get into a rental car and go to start it up, you automatically reach for what’s familiar to you before realizing that you’re not in your car. The same issue could have happened here with the Taser.”

Maria Haberfeld, who is also a John Jay professor and co-author of “Use of Force Training in Law Enforcement: A Reality Based Approach,” said, “People underestimate the level of stress police officers experience during traffic stops.”

Slip and capture was a new one on me. It turns out that the medical term is actually “slips and capture” (plural), but it’s been around for a long time. Researching it also led me to another case that almost perfectly mirrors the shooting of Daunte Wright. In January of 2009, Oakland transit officer Johannes Mehserle shot a suspect named Oscar Grant in the back with his Sig Sauer 9 mm after yelling “I’m going to Tase him!” Grant died at the scene. At his trial, Mehserle’s attorney called a human behavior psychiatrist as a witness and she promoted the “slips and capture” explanation for how the shooting had taken place. Johannes Mehserle was eventually acquitted on the murder charge but was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

The linked article provides a more detailed explanation of the phenomenon than the article from NBC. In Johannes Mehserle’s case, it was pointed out that he had to draw and fire his sidearm roughly 50 times per week during practice on the firing range. He had only ever drawn his Taser five times during his initial training and perhaps three times on the job. Under the stress and pressure of attempting to arrest a suspect who is resisting, “slips and capture” can supposedly result in a narrowing of mental focus, causing the officer to employ what is essentially “muscle memory” and perform the physical actions that they’ve done repeatedly. In both of the cases under discussion, that action was to draw the service weapon and fire.

So does this make sense or seem plausible? I’m neither a psychiatrist nor a law enforcement officer so I honestly don’t have a clue. I’m familiar with the concept of muscle memory from activities like golf and darts, but neither of those involves the levels of pressure police officers probably experience during a tense encounter with a potentially violent suspect. In any event, if Potter goes to trial, it’s a fairly safe bet that we’ll be hearing more about slips and capture.

One other item to note this morning is that charges are expected to be filed today against Kim Potter. If that seems rather quick to you (the shooting only happened three days ago), you’re not alone. But given the fact that there have been riots every night since it happened. I’m guessing that the prosecutors and the municipal government are willing to rush into the process in an attempt to appease the crowds. We’ve seen that before and it rarely ends well.

UPDATE: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the Mayor of Brooklyn Center had resigned on the previous day. It was the Chief of Police who resigned. The article has been corrected to reflect this.