Political News

Deaf man's family says he was unarmed when killed by trooper

Posted August 23

— A deaf man who was shot and killed by a North Carolina state trooper after he didn't stop for the officer's blue lights was unarmed and likely did not understand the officer's commands, the slain man's family says.

Daniel Harris' family said they want to make sure the incident is investigated thoroughly and also want the state to make changes so officers will immediately know they are dealing with a hearing-impaired driver.

Trooper Jermaine Saunders tried to pull Harris over for speeding Thursday evening on Interstate 485 near Interstate 85 in northeast Charlotte. Harris did not stop, leading the trooper on a 10-mile chase, the Highway Patrol said in a statement.

Harris stopped in his neighborhood within sight of his home. Harris and Saunders had what the State Bureau of Investigation described as "an encounter," leaving the 29-year-old man shot at least once and dead in the street.

Authorities have released little information about the investigation, including any possible body camera or dashboard camera footage or whether a gun was found near Harris. Saunders has been placed on administrative leave. A spokeswoman for the SBI, which is handling the investigation, didn't immediately respond Tuesday to questions, including whether authorities have interviewed Saunders yet.

Harris' family is raising money for his funeral and will use any extra money toward educating police officers on how to handle hard of hearing people and calling for a system to alert officers they are dealing with a deaf driver when they enter information into their computers, according to the family's posting on YouCaring.com.

"You don't see deafness the way that you see the difference in race. We need to change the system," Harris' brother Sam said to reporters using sign language and an interpreter after the Monday night vigil.

Sam Harris is deaf, and so are his brother's parents and other family members. They signed with each other as an Associated Press reporter knocked on their door Tuesday.

Sam Harris didn't want to talk Tuesday, but wrote a note leaving an email address for an interpreter, who did not immediately respond.

The National Association of the Deaf doesn't keep statistics on violent interactions involving deaf people and law enforcement. Its chief executive officer, Howard Rosenblum, said there are "too many" such incidents.

"Too often, officers make verbal orders for individuals to comply and act aggressively when those individuals do not comply," Rosenblum wrote in an email. "Deaf individuals often are unable to understand the verbal commands of law enforcement officers, and this has led to many physical altercations between law enforcement officers and deaf individuals over the years, with some resulting in death."

The NAD supports intensive training for law enforcement officers on dealing with people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing and says some officers should be trained to communicate in American Sign Language.

Executive Director of Disability Rights North Carolina Vickie Smith says deaf drivers are very capable, but that there needs to be a better process for interacting with police.

"The challenge in the current climate would be how does a deaf person communicate to police that he can't hear?" she said.

Smith said specific training, along with specific ways to identify deaf drivers are the keys.

"A special license plate, a placard of some sort, a bumper sticker," she said.

After the Monday night vigil, Sam Harris told reporters about a frightening encounter he had with an officer.

"I pulled over and within a few seconds, the officer is at my window with his weapon drawn and in my face. I'm deaf! I'm deaf! I'm deaf!" he signed, putting his hands on his ears in exaggerated motions.

The Associated Press left messages with two State Highway Patrol spokesmen about what training the patrol offers for dealing with deaf drivers. A state Division of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman could not immediately say whether if the agency offers any ways for deaf people to identify themselves through decals or other methods.

Frank Perry, the Department of Public Safety secretary issued a statement Tuesday.

"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. While the Highway Patrol, the State Bureau of Investigation and the District Attorney’s Office conduct their respective reviews, we are keeping all those affected by this tragedy in our thoughts and prayers,“ Perry said.

Harris is white, and authorities said they did not know Saunders' race.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jeffrey-collins

Martha Waggoner reported from Raleigh, N.C. She can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/martha-waggoner.


Please with your WRAL.com account to comment on this story. You also will need a Facebook account to comment.

Oldest First
View all
  • Janet Ghumri Aug 24, 3:34 p.m.
    user avatar

    I can only think that maybe the driver was trying to get close enough to his house, prior to interacting with the officer. At 615pm, it's still daylight, and he may not have been aware of the blues flashing from the time the officer turned them on, however I have a feeling that the driver getting out of the vehicle, after not stopping right away, would have put the officer into a different frame of mind. Without the dashboard or vody camera footage, we're all speculating.
    It comes down to the fact that the driver is aware of his disability, and should be taught/ prepared for interactions with authority. Officers are not going to be able to do their jobs if they are required to double check the status of each driver, in addition to everything else. And it's possible that may overstep the HIPPA laws, anyway. Officers aren't medical professionals. I feel bad for the family, but the responsibility is more on the driver.

  • William James Aug 24, 11:08 a.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Skip, no matter how you frame this story its suspicious. Firstly, its not uncommon for a person to drive a few extra miles to exit near a familiar spot vs. in the middle of traffic, especially when they know communication maybe an issue. If he was intentionally attempting to evade the police I doubt he was have driven towards his own home. Next, if there was body or dash cam video clearly showing the guy as armed and justified shooting, its hard to believe they wouldn't have mentioned this rather than allowing it to become a national story of an officer shooting an unarmed deaf man. Also, what was the point of spending millions on high tech body cams if the public isn't allowed to ever see the footage? Other states show it, one did it just a few months back proving their officers actions were totally justified.

  • Derril Salter Aug 24, 9:06 a.m.
    user avatar

    Okay...I know the guy was deaf. But knowledge of what should be done at a traffic stop should be common knowledge to all who have a driver's license. People who speak no English are in a similar situation.

  • Derril Salter Aug 24, 8:59 a.m.
    user avatar

    An unfortunate incident. Thoughts and prayers for all concerned. Case in point....when the blue lights come on behind you, you pull over asap and obey the commands of the officer. Period. If this person had done it by the book, none of this would have happened.

  • Sean Creasy Aug 24, 8:01 a.m.
    user avatar

    I can't help but ask what the victim did to make the officer feel threated enough to use deadly force...

  • Fred Garner Aug 23, 11:37 p.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    You must know how ridiculous you sound. Or you're a great jokster.

  • Mark Card Aug 23, 11:27 p.m.
    user avatar

    More info is needed about what happened here before passing any judgement on anyone, but 10 miles is a very long ways to drive with a state trooper's blue lights following behind you, more like an eternity, if that is what really happened. It is best to just pull over as soon as you safely can; then roll down your window at about the same time, keeping your seat belt fastened; and most importantly, keep your hands on your steering wheel at 10 and 2 or in at least in plain view with no quick, jerky movements as the officer approaches your window. Also, if you drive for 10 miles with blue lights following behind you before you pull over, then I would take it a step further and even hang both arms out of my car window with both palms planted on my driver door. It is unsettling to say the least when an officer puts their blue lights on behind you, but you have got to keep your wits about yourself and just pull over.

  • Jeff Freuler Aug 23, 7:05 p.m.
    user avatar

    "Harris is white, and authorities said they did not know Saunders' race"

    Does it matter if the officer felt threatened enough to use deadly force? NO!!!!

    The worst race baiters in this country is the news media.

  • Jeff Freuler Aug 23, 7:03 p.m.
    user avatar

    During a chase you do not have time nor the ability to check your computer to see if the person you are chasing i hearing impaired. The person that owns the car may not even be the driver.

  • Michael Hoenes Aug 23, 5:47 p.m.
    user avatar

    that cop planted the gun to cover his own behind. nobody is going to tell me a deaf guy is going to pull a gun on a cop.
    ol' jermaine needs to be charged with murder.