Growing national scrutiny of an N.C. state trooper’s killing of a deaf Charlotte motorist last week has prompted the State Department of Public Safety to issue a statement asking the public not to rush to judgment in the case.
The State Bureau of Investigation, a separate agency, is conducting a criminal investigation into the shooting of motorist Daniel Harris, 29, but the agency has been reluctant to release details, including whether or not Harris was armed or threatened the trooper in some way.
“Any loss of life regardless of the circumstances is truly a tragic and sad event for all involved. Let us all refrain from making assumptions or drawing conclusions prior to the internal and independent reviews,” said Department of Public Safety Secretary Frank L. Perry in a statement issued Tuesday.
The State Bureau of Investigation has said little about what led Harris to be shot by Trooper Jermaine Saunders of the North Carolina Highway Patrol during a traffic stop Thursday on Seven Oaks Drive. The SBI has said it is seeking witnesses to the chase as part of its investigation.
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Harris was driving on Interstate 485 when Saunders tried to pull him over for speeding, the highway patrol said. He fled and led the trooper on a seven-mile chase, the patrol said.
Troopers said the driver, later identified as Harris, got out of the vehicle, and that led to an “encounter” where a shot was fired. Harris died at the scene.
Trooper Saunders was placed on administrative leave, which is standard procedure after an officer-involved shooting. The Department of Public Safety lists Saunders as having graduated from Basic Patrol School in 2014 and taking the oath of office to be a trooper in May of that year.
Some accounts say Harris may have been gesturing in sign language when he “jumped” out of the car, fueling suspicions Saunders was either taken off guard by the gestures or was simply not trained in dealing with deaf motorists.
State Highway Patrol officials say their basic law enforcement training includes lessons on how to recognize and deal with suspects and victims who have hearing impairments, as well as autism, visual impairments, mobility issues and Alzheimer’s disease. That training was developed by the state Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission and is mandated statewide for every sworn law enforcement officer while in training, officials said.
“Keep your eyes on the person’s hands,” says the training guide, which the Highway Patrol provided to the Observer Tuesday. “Deaf people have been stopped by an officer and then shot and killed because the deaf person made a quick move for a pen and pad in his or her coat pocket or glove compartment. These unfortunate incidents can be prevented by mutual awareness which overcomes the lack of communication.”
Harris’ family issued a statement earlier this week asking for more specialized training in dealing with the deaf drivers. That call is being echoed by other advocates for the deaf, including the Ruderman Family Foundation, a national leader in disability inclusion.
“The growing unaddressed problem with policing across the United States is the lack of training police receive in how to interact with people with disabilities in high stress encounters,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.
“People with disabilities will be safer the more the police are properly trained in this regard, and it needs to happen now before more tragedies occur.”