Cop who shot suspect in 2019 also claimed he thought gun was Taser

No charges were ever filed against New Hope Police Department officer
This screenshot from surveillance video released by the Bucks County District Attorney's Office shows the moment when a now-retired police officer with the New Hope Police Department in Pennsylvania mistook his service weapon for a Taser and shot a suspect in March 2019.

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This screenshot from surveillance video released by the Bucks County District Attorney's Office shows the moment when a now-retired police officer with the New Hope Police Department in Pennsylvania mistook his service weapon for a Taser and shot a suspect in March 2019.

The case of a police officer who fatally shot a Black man during a traffic stop outside Minneapolis on Sunday recalls a similar shooting two years ago in which a Pennsylvania deputy wounded an unarmed man in the “honest but mistaken” belief that he was using a Taser.

Brian Riling, a white man facing charges of assault, burglary and retaliation against his estranged girlfriend, survived a gunshot to his torso during a brief skirmish inside a holding cell at the New Hope Police Department on March 3, 2019.

Cpl. Matt Zimmerman, who opened fire and wounded the man, was never charged and retired from the department after claiming he thought his gun was a Taser.

At the time, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said the shooting “was neither justified, nor criminal, but was excused” even though Zimmerman had violated department policy that Tasers be worn on the opposite hip from the firearm. The district attorney’s investigation revealed the officer had his Taser on his right side, in front of his firearm.

The department’s policy, however, requires officers to wear Tasers on their non-dominant side, known as the “cross-draw position.”

Weintraub concluded the officer “did not possess the criminal mental state required to be guilty of a crime under state law,” he said in a statement to then-Police Chief Michael Cummings.

Weintraub’s statement referenced a Pennsylvania law that says a person cannot be charged with a crime “if he makes a mistake as a matter of fact for which there is a reasonable explanation or excuse.”

What happened in 2019

The district attorney’s office released a video of the shooting, which began with Riling entering a holding cell. Once inside, an officer instructed Riling to remove his belt, and while doing so “a white, rectangular object consistent with a drug baggie” fell from his waist to the floor, Weintraub said. Riling quickly tried to conceal the object with his foot, resulting in a tussle with the officer in the room.

That’s when the second officer entered the cell and yelled “Taser!” before shooting and wounding Riling, who was rushed to a hospital in critical condition, but he recovered after several days.

Zimmerman’s lawyer, William Goldman, said his client had acted “in defense of a fellow officer with a large man,” reports said.

Zimmerman was placed on paid administrative leave as the incident was investigated and quietly retired from the department three days before Weintraub released the findings of his investigation.

“Given the totality of circumstances, the officer would have been justified in using his Taser to regain control of Riling inside the holding cell,” Weintraub said, “as the officer had a reasonable belief the scuffle posed a danger to his fellow officer.”

In January 2020, a judge sentenced Riling to nine to 23 months in county jail and three years of probation.

Last month, Riling filed a lawsuit against the officer, saying his constitutional rights were violated, reports said.

Minnesota shooting

Similarly, during Sunday’s altercation after a traffic stop, Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter said she mistakenly grabbed her gun when she was going for her Taser. She can be heard on her body camera video shouting “Taser! Taser!” before firing a single shot that killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright.

Body camera footage released less than 24 hours after the shooting shows three officers around Wright’s car, which authorities said was pulled over because it had expired registration tags. As one of the officers attempted to handcuff Wright, a second officer told him he was being arrested on a warrant. A struggle erupted.

Potter can be heard saying: “I’ll Tase you! I’ll Tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!” Body cam footage show she drew her weapon after Wright broke free from police outside his car and got back behind the wheel. After firing a single shot from her handgun, the car sped away and Potter can be heard saying, “Holy (expletive)! I shot him.”

The car traveled several blocks before hitting another vehicle.

Wright died of a gunshot wound to the chest, and the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office has since ruled his death a homicide.

Potter resigned Tuesday along with Police Chief Tim Gannon.

Tasers are a form of stun gun that deploy electrified barbs to subdue a suspect. The devices became a popular tool for police officers throughout the early 2000s as a less-lethal weapon, such as pepper spray or batons.

‘Fruitvale Station’

Other cases of officers mistaking a Taser for a gun have rarely occurred.

In 2009, a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer fatally shot Oscar Grant III, a young, unarmed man on New Year’s Day, as he was lying facedown on a train station platform in Oakland, California. The officer said the killing was an accident and that he had mistaken his firearm for his Taser. He was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The incident served as inspiration for the 2013 film “Fruitvale Station” starring Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer.

In 2016, a former volunteer sheriff’s deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was convicted of killing a suspect when he accidentally fired his handgun instead of a Taser.

Information provided by The New York Times and The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.

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