Deaf man's family says he was unarmed when killed by trooper
Posted August 23, 2016 2:14 p.m. EDT
Updated August 23, 2016 6:39 p.m. EDT
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — 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.