North Carolina investigators probing last week’s fatal shooting by a state trooper of a deaf and speech-impaired driver in Charlotte will be meeting with the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office this week to discuss their preliminary findings, a State Bureau of Investigation spokesman says.
The SBI interviewed Trooper Jermaine Saunders on Tuesday night about last week’s shooting death of Daniel Kevin Harris, said agency spokesman Shannon O’Toole. He said investigators handling the case will meet with Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray and his staff no later than Thursday. Murray will decide whether criminal charges will be filed.
A spokeswoman for Murray said no meeting had been scheduled as of 3 p.m. Wednesday. Saunders remains on administrative leave, which is customary for troopers involved in a shooting.
Details about Harris’ death have been slow to emerge. O’Toole declined to disclose what was discussed between Saunders and SBI agents. Audria Bridges, special agent in charge of the SBI’s Southern Piedmont district, did not return a phone call or emails seeking comment.
The SBI has said it is seeking witnesses to the chase as part of its investigation.
Harris was shot last Thursday by Saunders near his family home on Seven Oaks Drive in North Charlotte. According to the Department of Public Safety, Harris was speeding on Interstate 485 when Saunders tried to pull him over. Harris, 29, led the trooper on a seven-mile pursuit before pulling over near his home.
Harris, who was unarmed, was killed after he got out of his car. His family said it is likely he did not hear or understand the officer’s commands. Neighbors have speculated that Saunders, who has been a trooper for two years, misinterpreted Harris’ gestures as he tried to communicate.
That, in itself, is not grounds for a criminal charge. As the expression goes, law enforcement officers “don’t need to be right, only reasonable” when they use their weapons. If Saunders had a reasonable fear that he was in imminent danger of death or serious injury, he was justified in using deadly force under the law.
That belief did not stop Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall Kerrick from being charged with the 2013 killing of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man, but jurors said it was a major factor in the hung jury that led to the charges being dropped.
Criminal charges against state troopers are exceedingly rare, says Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminal justice professor who tracks police use of deadly force around the country. Only 74 officers have been charged in connection with on-duty shootings since 2005. Only four of those cases involved state troopers. Two were convicted, Stinson says.
Interactions between the deaf and police have proven problematic.
According to the Washington Post, an elderly deaf man was severely beaten by police during a January traffic stop in Oklahoma. Police say he did not obey their commands and made a move as though he was reaching for a gun. He says he was reaching for a device so he could communicate with them.
Last year in Washington state, a woman said she was beaten by a police officer because she couldn’t hear his command. In March, a deaf Minnesota man received a more than $300,000 settlement after being beaten during a traffic stop. He said the violence started when he tried to tell one officer he was deaf and asked to communicate in writing.
Finding what actually led Saunders to open fire could be hard to determine. It’s not clear if there is any video from Saunders’ car. Lacking that and any eyewitnesses, Stinson says the content from dispatch tapes, messages Saunders may have sent from his mobile display terminal, or the consistency of his statements to investigators may become key pieces of information.
Harris’ autopsy could also be vital – whether he was shot in the back, for example. O’Toole said the autopsy and toxicology reports on Harris will take up to three months to complete.
“In the end I think this could be a tragic error of an officer not recognizing a hearing-impaired driver, barking out commands that the driver can’t hear,” Stinson said. “A noncompliant driver can lead an officer to believe he is in imminent danger.”
The last trooper-involved shooting in Charlotte occurred in 2000, when two troopers and three Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers fired 31 shots at Darryl Woodall of Gastonia. Police said at the time that Woodall lunged at one of the troopers with two screw drivers wrapped together by silver duct tape, making it appear he was holding a gun. He was legally drunk at the time and may have been committing “suicide by cop,” according to his family.
All five officers were cleared of wrongdoing.
The issue of police preparedness to deal with special-needs cases drew nationwide attention last month when police in North Miami shot the unarmed caretaker of an autistic man playing in the street with a toy truck.
Harris’ death has brought calls from his family that police receive specialized training to deal with deaf drivers.
The American Civil Liberties Union has teamed with Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, to produce a video on the rights of hearing-impaired drivers during police stops.
In Mecklenburg County, there is no specialized training for dealing with the deaf. Law enforcement officers, however, do receive specialized training to better deal with the mentally ill through the county Health Department’s Trauma and Justice Partnerships program.
Administrator Sarah Greene, who is married to a police officer, said that, given the current distrust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, a great sense of familiarity and mutual understanding is vital.
“Anything that develops a relationship between a certain group of people and police around a common purpose will change their interactions when there is some sort of crisis,” she said.
A common purpose? “Helping people with special needs get help for those needs without going to jail,” Greene said. “And nobody is hurt.”
In Morganton, the longtime home of the North Carolina School for the Deaf, many of the town’s police officers have grown up around hearing-impaired children and adults, said Maj. Tony Lowdermilk, a Morganton native.
He says the department has officers who sign, and each shift has at least one police interpreter on duty.
That said, Lowdermilk can understand how problems might arise. Familiarity is a key.
“We try to train our folks to look for indicators and mannerisms so officers don’t jump to conclusions,” he said.
Researcher Maria David and the Washington Post contributed.