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Why Tasers were 'ineffective' in fatal police shooting in Brooklyn Center

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The Minneapolis Police Department's Taser guns
Taser guns used by the Minneapolis Police Department. Many law enforcement agencies say Tasers don't perform as well as the manufacturer claims.
Brandt Williams | MPR News file

State investigators are still piecing together the chain of events that ended in police officers shooting a man in Brooklyn Center last month. 

Brooklyn Center police responded to a domestic 911 call on Aug. 31 involving the 21-year-old man,  Kobe Dimock-Heisler, who was armed with a hammer and a knife. Multiple officers fired Tasers at Dimock-Heisler to restrain him but they ended up resorting to their firearms because the Tasers were “ineffective,” according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

APM Reports’ Curtis Gilbert, who published an investigation on why Tasers are often unreliable earlier this year, joined MPR News host Tom Crann to discuss Tasers’ role in fatal police shootings.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

Tom Crann: On TV, we see people who get hit by Tasers freeze up and fall to the ground, completely incapacitated. Why did that apparently not happen here?

Curtis Gilbert: We don't know specifically what went wrong in this case, but what we do know is that Tasers can be ineffective for all kinds of reasons. They fire two electrified darts. Both of those darts are going to need to hit you in order for electricity to flow between them. So if one of them misses, nothing's going to happen. If one of them gets snagged in some thick or loose-fitting clothing, they might not make a good circuit either.

And then there's the issue of the range of the Taser. They don't have a dramatic effect on people when they're fired at too close of a range. And that's a problem because close range is where cops typically use Tasers. And at those ranges where cops typically use them, they tend to have less of that classic Taser effect where you freeze up and fall to the ground.

CrannHow often are Tasers effective?

Gilbert: Not as often as you might think. For instance, we looked at data from the Los Angeles Police Department. Officers there rated their Tasers as effective only a little more than half the time. We looked at other departments. You saw rates at 60 percent, 70 percent — 80 percent at best. It's a lot lower than I think people would generally expect.

Crann: Your reporting found that effectiveness dropped in cities that switched to a newer Taser model. Do we know what kind of Tasers Brooklyn Center uses?

Gilbert: Yes, they use the Taser X26P and that is one of those newer models. These were designed to be safer for the people being hit with a Taser because they put out a lower level of electrical charge. When we looked at big police departments like New York, Houston, Los Angeles that switched to these newer models, we saw officers there reported they were effective less often.

In this case, since information is still coming out, it's hard to know whether the model played a role. The company that makes Tasers says that the newer models are just as effective as the older ones.

CrannHow often do Tasers play a role in fatal police shootings like this?

Gilbert: It actually is a pretty common factor in police shootings. If you look at data since 2015, Minnesota police have shot and killed 58 people and in 10 of those cases they fired a Taser first. And it wasn't effective. So, that means Tasers played a role in 1 in 6 fatal police shootings in Minnesota since 2015. Nationally, we found more than 250 cases like that. And that was looking at just a three-year period.