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Gun violence in the US

Family of deaf driver, shot dead by police in North Carolina, blames tragic misunderstanding

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 1:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2016, 8:47pm

In North Carolina, where state troopers are trained in dealing with the hearing impaired, investigators are still trying to unravel how a traffic stop turned fatal for a deaf driver with a history of minor offences.

The family of Daniel Kevin Harris said he was unarmed and suggested the sequence of events was a tragic misunderstanding — the type the state’s training manual warns troopers to avoid.

Authorities haven’t said why Trooper Jermaine Saunders fired, and a review of public records shows a few traffic charges against Harris from other states, according to a Denver police report.

Thursday’s incident started when Harris did not pull over as Saunders turned on his blue lights on Interstate 485 near Charlotte about 6.15pm and ended after Harris drove down several kilometres of surface streets to his home.

North Carolina’s Basic Law Enforcement Training manual has a section that deals with interacting with deaf drivers. “Keep your eyes on the person’s hands,” it reads. “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 in his or her coat pocket or glove compartment. These unfortunate incidents can be prevented by mutual awareness which overcomes the lack of communication.”

The victim’s family said Harris likely didn’t understand the officer’s commands.

The Highway Patrol on Tuesday urged people not to jump to conclusions.

“Let us all refrain from making assumptions or drawing conclusions prior to the internal and independent reviews” by the patrol, the State Bureau of Investigation and the district attorney, Secretary Frank Perry of the state Department of Public Safety said in a news release. The agency oversees the Highway Patrol.

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.

Harris’ family is raising money for his funeral and will put any extra money toward educating police officers on interacting with hard of hearing people and calling for a computerized system to alert officers they are dealing with a deaf driver, 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 and his late brother’s parents and other family members.

Sam Harris didn’t want to talk Tuesday, but wrote a note leaving an email address for an interpreter, who said no interviews could be conducted that day.

Daniel Harris had been charged with traffic offences and other misdemeanours in three states.

He was arrested twice in Florida in 2010 — once for theft and once for speeding. A charge of resisting an officer was dropped. That year he pleaded no-contest to theft and guilty to speeding.

And in December of that same year, he pleaded guilty to interfering with or resisting police in Watertown, Connecticut.

The National Association of the Deaf works with law enforcement agencies to improve existing training manuals but doesn’t have one of its own, CEO Howard Rosenblum said in an email.

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.

The North Carolina training manual includes clues to alert troopers that they may be dealing with a deaf person, such as they seem alert but don’t respond to noise or sounds. It also advises troopers on types of communication that deaf people may use.

While the NAD doesn’t keep statistics on violent encounters between deaf people and law enforcement, 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.