Police killings of unarmed civilians are becoming a weekly occurrence. This weeks victim was a twenty-nine year old deaf man who was reportedly attempting to communicate with the trooper using sign language in the moments before he was killed. Daniel Kevin Harris was being pulled over by a North Carolina State Trooper, now identified as Jermaine Saunders. Harris did not respond to the trooper’s attempt to get him to stop and continued to drive home. Upon arrival, Harris exited his vehicle and within seconds he was dead.
Harris was allegedly speeding there was some kind of crash before he and the trooper arrived. Police described the drive to Harris’ home as a low speed chase. According to Harris’ neighbor Mark Barringer, “I was here in my driveway and I saw the highway patrol car come through and it was smoking really bad, About 10 seconds later, I heard one gunshot.” The shooting occurred on the street in front of Harris’ home. Barringer told police that Harris was shot “almost immediately” once he stepped from his vehicle.
Police officials released little information on the events leading up the the shooting. A statement released read, “While on Seven Oaks Drive, the driver exited his vehicle and an encounter took place between the driver and the trooper causing a shot to be fired.” Police also confirmed that Harris was attempting to communicate with the trooper using sign language in the seconds before Trooper Saunders shot him.
So far, things aren’t looking good for Trooper Saunders. But as we have seen in virtually all other cases of police violence, there is a significant chance that Trooper Saunders will walk. Dealing with a man flailing his arms around will be deemed an act that undoubtedly put Trooper Saunders in an uncontrollable state of fear. Every time we see a police killing, we see a different flaw in the manner in which law enforcement is provided in the US. This case in particular highlights the failure of police to prepare for encounters with handicapped citizens.
Virtually all encounters with the homeless are encounters with people who have varying degrees of mental handicap. While Harris was not homeless, he shares with them an inability to properly communicate with authority. When put in frightening situations they can react in ways that do not fit into the law enforcement box of acceptable behavior. Law enforcement interaction is about controlling a situation, however, police more often than not don’t have the skills or training to overcome obstacles in communication. They jump to a standard law enforcement aggressive reaction before taking the time to understand that there is a communication breakdown occurring. The failure on the part of the state to teach crisis intervention training is partly to blame.
Daniel’s brother Jay Harris told reporters that he believed that his brother was just scared. He didn’t believe Daniel knew what was happening. Harris was unarmed which leads to a string of questions for Trooper Saunders who will be interviewed by an interval investigation this week. He I on paid vacation pending the results of the investigation. Why did Saunders feel the need to shoot Harris instead of physically controlling him or using a Taser?More than likely we will hear the standard defenses of he reached for his waistband, I thought he had a gun and I feared for my life.
Dozens of people gathered near Harris’ home Monday night where candles lined the street. The outline of a heart was painted in the middle of the street where Harris died. The outpouring of support from neighbors and the community was heartwarming. Daniel leaves behind a three year old son. Daniel’s other Brother Sam Harris stated “He was effervescent, funny, social, people enjoyed being around him, just a very unique man. It’s a nice feeling that you’ve got a community like this that supports you. It can be overwhelming in a time of grief like this.” The support from friends and neighbors does little to comfort Sam who had his own criticism of how Trooper Saunders handled his brother.. “The police need to become aware of how to communicate with deaf people, what that might look like and how to avoid situations like this from ever happening again.” Police officials announced Tuesday that their investigation into Daniel Harris’ shooting death has become a criminal investigation and they are seeking out witnesses to the alleged car chase that happened before the shooting.