Growing national scrutiny of an N.C. state trooper’s killing of a deaf Charlotte motorist last week has prompted the State Department of Public Safety to issue a statement asking the public not to rush to judgment in the case.
The State Bureau of Investigation, a separate agency, is conducting a criminal investigation into the shooting of motorist Daniel Harris, 29, but the agency has been reluctant to release details, including whether or not Harris was armed or threatened the trooper in some way.
In the mean time, media speculation had grown that it could be another case of law enforcement over reacting, with tenuous suggestions that the shooting is not unlike recent high profile cases of African-Americans being killed by police.
“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,” said Department of Public Safety Secretary Frank L. Perry in a statement issued Tuesday.
“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.”
The State Bureau of Investigation has said little about what led Harris to be shot by Trooper Jermaine Saunders of the North Carolina Highway Patrol during a traffic stop Thursday on Seven Oaks Drive. The SBI has said it is seeking witnesses to the chase as part of its investigation.
Harris was driving on Interstate 485 last Thursday when Saunders tried to pull him over for speeding, the highway patrol said. He fled and led the trooper on a seven-mile chase. Troopers said the driver, later identified as Harris, got out of the vehicle, and that led to an “encounter” where a shot was fired. Harris died at the scene.
Trooper Saunders was placed on administrative leave, which is standard procedure after an officer-involved shooting.
The case has earned both national coverage and international attention, including varying details published in African, Russian, Australian and British newspaper and Web sites. In some cases, its reported Saunders says he shot Harris because the deaf man was advancing and not following commands.
One Web site, the JD Journal in Utah, states: “When Harris finally pulled over just outside his home, he exited the car and was immediately shot by trooper Jermaine Saunders.”
Others claims Harris may have been gesturing in sign language when he “jumped” out of the car, fueling suspicious Saunders was not trained in with deaf motorists. North Carolina’s State Highway Patrol officials did not return calls about its training.
Harris’ family issued a statement earlier this week calling for more training for police in dealing with deaf drivers, and that call was echoed by other advocates for the deaf, including the Ruderman Family Foundation, a national leader in disability inclusion.
“The growing unaddressed problem with policing across the United States is the lack of training police receive in how to interact with people with disabilities in high stress encounters,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.
“People with disabilities will be safer the more the police are properly trained in this regard, and it needs to happen now before more tragedies occur.”