Two experts in law enforcement training say a North Carolina state trooper’s decision to mount a high-speed chase that ended with the fatal shooting of a Charlotte deaf man may have escalated the incident beyond what was needed to make a safe arrest.
The Aug. 18 hot pursuit down Interstate 485 ended not far from Daniel Harris’ home in northeast Charlotte when the 29-year-old was killed by Trooper Jermaine Saunders after he left his car and fled.
Saunders had chased Harris’ car for some eight miles at speeds reaching 100 mph after the trooper said he clocked Harris’ Volvo going 88 in a 70 mph zone. Saunders had also rammed Harris’ car on a busy interstate exit ramp onto Rocky River Road in an attempt to stop his flight.
No bystanders were injured. But experts say high-speed chases pose a significant but less obvious risk: Triggering physiological changes in the drivers that can affect their decision-making. Police trainers call it “the adrenaline dump.”
To me, it’s incomprehensible that I lost my brother in such a senseless way. An officer that should be protecting my family ended up shooting my brother for speeding.
Jason Donath, brother of Daniel Harris, who was shot by a state trooper after an Aug. 18 high-speed chase.
“There’s a sensory overload involved in a pursuit. The adrenaline amps up. You get tunnel vision,” said Jeff Lockaby, a former training officer for the Greenville County (S.C) Sheriff’s Office. “These are such dynamic, fluid situations that can change with the flick of an eyelash. When things go bad, they go bad very fast.”
Geoff Alpert, a nationally known expert in police training, says Saunders’ decision to chase Harris for that long a distance appears to have aggravated the situation, with Harris speeding up rather than slowing down after Saunders put on his blue lights.
Alpert believes Saunders should have backed off as the chase dragged on, particularly since officers apparently knew Harris was heading to his family’s home in the Seven Oaks neighborhood and had another officer waiting there when Harris arrived.
“The whole point is to get the guy to slow down,” said Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminologist and frequent critic of hot pursuits. “Why chase? It doesn’t make sense. If they knew where he lived, why did they not just go to the house?”
“Officers need to get to the point where they do not raise the risks to themselves, the public, even the bad guy. You don’t know why he was running. All he’s doing is speeding.”
A state investigation continues, and Saunders, a 28-year-old with two years on the force, remains on administrative leave. The North Carolina Troopers Association, which reportedly has hired a lawyer for Saunders, did not respond to a phone call or email seeking comment.
What led to the shooting remains unknown. The use of lethal force is considered legally justified when officers have the reasonable fear of imminent death or serious injury to themselves or others.
Harris’ family says he was unarmed and was afraid of police due to past misunderstandings involving his deafness. Harris had been arrested in three states for resisting arrest. He was convicted in Connecticut; the other charges were dropped.
He was shot within seconds of Saunders reporting “a jump and run,” meaning Harris had left his car and was trying to flee.
Under North Carolina law, driving 18 miles over the speed limit can be considered reckless driving.
Jason Donath, the dead man’s brother, said in an email to the Observer that the law enforcement response was excessive given Harris’ alleged violation.
“To me, it’s incomprehensible that I lost my brother in such a senseless way,” Donath said. “An officer that should be protecting my family ended up shooting my brother for speeding.”
Better or worse?
North Carolina Highway Patrol policy classifies speeders among the traffic violators “who present a substantial continuing hazard to the public.”
“These persons should be apprehended as quickly as possible, consistent with the exercise of due care for the public’s safety,” the policy says.
If a trooper launches a hot pursuit, the officer and a supervisor “shall constantly evaluate (the) decision to continue a chase.”
That choice basically boils down to a decision. Which poses the bigger risk: Not stopping the suspects or continuing to chase them?
Most police chases still involve relatively minor offenses like speeding. Given the threat to officers, bystanders and suspects, several states and cities have reduced the justifiable circumstances for a hot pursuit.
In 2012, the Florida Highway Patrol restricted chases to suspected felons, drunk drivers and reckless drivers. The number of pursuits dropped by half, USA Today says. But more than a third of the chases in 2013 and 2014 violated the new standards, the paper said.
Lockaby says his 30-year law enforcement career included occasions when he was behind the wheel during hot pursuits and the monitoring supervisor back at the station for others.
“When I first started, it was the norm to pursue someone to bring them to justice, to account for their actions, and officers were under a lot of pressure to do that. But innocent bystanders often got caught in between,” he said. “The profession has evolved.”
At the Observer’s request, he listened to the 19-minute recording of radio dispatches between Saunders, his dispatcher and his trooper supervisor during the pursuit of Harris.
In a series of emails, Lockaby commended the trooper’s frequent updates on his location, traffic and road conditions. While Alpert criticized Saunders’ tactical decision to ram Harris’ car on the exit ramp to Rocky River Road – calling it a significant risk to nearby motorists – Lockaby described it as “a clear indication of an officer thinking and acting rationally vs. reacting.”
The so-called precision immobilization technique, or PIT, is designed to stop a fleeing car by knocking it sideways.
“It’s kind of hard to argue that the trooper wasn’t in control if he executed a complex maneuver involving two moving vehicles,” Lockaby said
He said Saunders sounded “calm and controlled throughout.”
Yet, he added. “The ‘shots fired’ airs VERY quickly after the subject exits his Volvo. These incidents almost always escalate very quickly in unexpected ways, which is all the more reason for calm, cool heads deciding to chase or not.”
Alpert and Lockaby wondered how the incident might have ended if Saunders had stopped chasing Harris and instead driven to his home at a later and calmer time to make the arrest.
Said Lockaby: “As an officer, you always have to ask yourself: Are my actions making this situation better or worse?”