CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The autopsy report of a deaf man fatally shot by police was released Thursday.
The autopsy shows 29-year-old Daniel Harris died of a gunshot wound to the chest. The gunshot injured Harris' heart as well as caused injury to his right lung and liver.
The report reveals that Harris tested negative for drugs and alcohol at the time of the incident.
In August, Harris was fatally shot by police after Trooper Jermaine Saunders followed him for nearly 10 miles to the front door of his home in Charlotte's University City neighborhood after trying to stop him from speeding on Interstate 485.
When Harris got out of his car, North Carolina State Highway Patrol officials said he and Saunders had some sort of altercation.
"It was surreal. You just don't expect to see something like that," said neighbor Mark Barringer, who witnessed the encounter. "When the gunshot went off, it was scary."
Saunders fired one shot, and Harris died in the middle of the street.
Since the incident, The State Bureau of Investigation has said it will conduct a criminal investigation.
Harris likely was trying to communicate with the trooper using sign language, neighbors said. They contended that Saunders should have been trained to recognize that, and the officer needed to know how to de-escalate the situation.
"You're pulling someone over who is deaf. They are handicapped," Barringer said. "To me, what happened is totally unacceptable."
Harris' brother, Sam, said he has had similar misunderstandings with authorities. The brothers, their parents and several other family members all are deaf.
Daniel Harris' survivors include parents Jacqueline Schwartz Harris of Charlotte and Kevin Harris of East Longmeadow, Mass.; two sisters; three brothers; a 3-year-old son, Jairo Daniel Harris; and the mother of his child, Agnieszka Skrzypek of Westfield, Mass.
“I (was) pulled over and within a few seconds, the officer is at my window with his weapon drawn and in my face. I motioned to him. 'I'm deaf, I'm deaf!' ” Sam Harris of Palm Harbor, Fla., said in sign language at a Monday night vigil in honor of his younger brother.
The grieving family said it stands with other oppressed minorities and demands justice as well as police reform.
“You don't see deafness the way you see race, and what we need to change is the system,” Sam Harris said.
The state troopers' training manual cautions officers that interactions with deaf motorists sometimes can lead to tragic misunderstandings. And Chief Executive Howard Rosenblum of the National Association of the Deaf said too many violent interactions occur; his organization doesn't keep records on the cases.
The training manual advises troopers to watch a person’s hands because “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.”
Police records show that Daniel Harris had been charged with traffic offenses and other misdemeanors in three other states:
- Colorado, where he was stopped in 2015 and 2009 in Denver. Five misdemeanor charges filed in 2008 included obstructing a peace officer; all were later dropped. A sister lives in suburban Lakewood, Colo.
- Florida, where he was arrested twice in 2010, once for petit theft and once for speeding. The petit theft charge is a misdemeanor involving property valued at less than $300. He pleaded no-contest to petit theft and guilty to speeding,and a charge of resisting an officer was dropped.
- Connecticut, where he pleaded guilty in December 2010 to interfering with or resisting police in Watertown. He graduated from American School for the Deaf, about 30 miles away in Hartford, in 2006.
Director Frank Perry of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state police, cautioned against a rush to judgment in the case, saying both internal and independent reviews of Saunders, policies and training are being conducted. The trooper has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigations.
The State Bureau of Investigation is leading one probe, and officials say they will review dashboard- and body-camera videos from Highway Patrol and Charlotte Metropolitan Police Department officers.
Daniel Harris' body will be cremated after a 5 p.m. ET visitation Tuesday and memorial service immediately afterward at First Baptist Church in Charlotte.
The Harris family has set up a YouCaring page that already has enough contributions to pay for Daniel Harris' funeral; by Tuesday evening it had raised more than $24,000. But family members said on the page that they have set a $30,000 fundraising goal because they want to create a foundation to train law enforcement officers on how to recognize deaf people and properly confront them.
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