Taser-gun confusion noted in criticism of fatal San Leandro police shooting of Steven Taylor

As independent investigators determined that two officers who played a role in the fatal shooting of Steven Taylor -- a mentally ill Black man waving a bat inside a Walmart store -- violated policy and failed to de-escalate the situation, the subject of Taser-gun confusion was also one of their key findings. 

The investigation revealed that San Leandro Police Officer Jason Fletcher, who has since retired and been charged with voluntary manslaughter, used his Taser twice on Taylor on April 18, 2020, taking out the stun gun with his left hand, while also drawing his gun in his right hand. He then fired the gun at Taylor, killing him, and finally used a Taser for the third time.

The report pointed out that San Leandro's police policy "disapproves of an officer having his gun and Taser unholstered simultaneously: Officers should not hold both a firearm and the TASER device at the same time. The reason that this deployment is not approved is that when an officer has both weapons out, there is a significant likelihood of confusion under stress and the resultant deployment of a different weapon than the officer intends."

The subject of mistakenly using Tasers for guns is now a matter of national conversation.

Former Brooklyn Center Officer Kim Potter is now being charged with second-degree manslaughter after she said she accidentally drew her department-issued firearm to shoot Daunte Wright in Minnesota on Sunday after pulling him over for an expired vehicle tag, instead of using her stun gun. 

A New York Times review of 15 cases of so-called "weapon confusion" over the past 20 years showed that only five of the officers were indicted, including former BART officer Johannes Mehserle, who fatally shot Oscar Grant in Oakland in 2009. Only three, including the only two cases in which people were killed, were eventually found guilty.

Mike Rains, a lawyer who represents law enforcement in criminal and civil cases, including Fletcher and Mehserle, told the Times that officers often mistake firearms for stun guns because they are on "autopilot," and the officers should not be held criminally culpable.

The 27-page report was conducted by independent investigators Michael Gennaco and Stephen Connolly with the OIR Group.

Both investigators found that Fletcher and his partner, Officer Stefan Overton, violated police policy by failing to use crisis intervention techniques to talk with Taylor to see if he would put the bat down, failing to wait for backup or form any type of plan, and using a Taser and a gun simultaneously. 

Fletcher is no longer with the force and has pleaded not guilty.

After being placed on administrative leave, Overton returned to active duty less than a month after the fatal shooting, on May 7, 2020.

He has been working in the Criminal Investigations Division since Feb. 16, according to the city. 

Specifically, the investigators found that Overton violated the city's policy on use-of-force and inappropriately using a Taser, as he stunned Taylor without warning and without trying to de-escalate the situation. Taylor had already been stunned twice and shot by his partner.

The San Leandro Police Department will make a determination concerning disciplinary actions regarding Overton by June 18, the city said. 

The report was released on Thursday, three days before the anniversary of Taylor's death.

Fletcher gave an initial interview about what happened the day after the shooting but he refused to be interviewed by the independent investigators. Overton was interviewed in February and March of this year. 

A city spokesman said after the District Attorney charged Fletcher in September 2020, the City Council approved the contract with OIR Group the following month. The OIR investigators interviewed Overton only after reviewing hundreds of pages of documents and reviewing hours of testimony and witness statements.

"Why did it take them nearly a year to conclude the same things we already knew?" Taylor's grandmother, Addie Kitchen, said in an interview. 

She is more focused on the city celebrating her grandson's life on Sunday, which San Leandro has declared Steven Taylor Day. There will be music, dancing and speeches at Marina Park. 

"We demand justice" for Steven Taylor. (Zachary Borja)

During his initial talk with investigators regarding his use of Taser and firearm simultaneously, Fletcher told detectives that he practiced with both weapons out of the holster "on his own" and had been provided such training by SLPD although he admitted that such use was not "preferred."

Fletcher told detectives that he kept both weapons out of his holster because of "exigent circumstances."

And for the first time, the report gives insight into what Fletcher was thinking. 

"I was - it was - he was comin' to kill me," Fletcher told superiors. "He - he's not comin' to give me a hug. He's not comin' to say, hey sorry about that. He's got wires in him. I've shocked the shit out of him twice. I don't know if he's crazy. I don't know if he's on drugs. He's comin' to kill me. And I'm not gonna die in a fuckin' Walmart."

However, the investigators noted in their report that "it was Fletcher’s actions that created those exigent circumstances."

The investigators said that Fletcher could have tried to talk the young man down and given the situation some "distance and space" before using weapons within the first 40 seconds of entering the store. 

"Had a different approach been taken, the use of deadly force might have been avoided altogether," the report states. 

"The fact that an "exigency" created by Fletcher’s rushed engagement with Taylor does not provide a justification to go outside SLPD policy and have both weapons out of the holster at the same time," the investigators wrote.

And while Fletcher denied that he mistakenly shot Taylor when he intended to deploy the Taser a third time, "his mere denial is not sufficient to eliminate the strong possibility of a mistaken discharge of his firearm," the investigators concluded. 

The city of San Leandro is now considering forming some sort of citizen oversight of the police department, which cities such as Oakland and San Francisco have. In February, the council considered various models. Currently, there is no independent body watching over the San Leandro police. An investigation by KTVU found that cities with robust oversight of police pay out less money in wrongful death suits. Taylor's family has filed such a suit against the police. 

"I want to make it clear to the residents of San Leandro," said Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter, "that we will learn from this tragic event and make any needed changes to our training, outreach, and culture to ensure something like this never happens again." 

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Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez