Unarmed Deaf Dad Apparently Tries to Sign to Police, Is Fatally Shot Instead

daniel harrisEvery case of an unarmed person being shot by police is tragic, but the latest story of this nature has a particularly heartbreaking twist: Daniel Harris, a 29-year-old deaf and mute man, was shot by a North Carolina state trooper "almost immediately" after exiting his vehicle after he was pulled over for a speeding violation, according to witnesses. The father-of-one, who was just feet away from his home, was apparently trying to communicate with the officer via sign language when he was gunned down.


Authorities say that police tried to pull Harris over for speeding, but he didn't stop, continuing instead in the direction of his home (it's unclear whether Harris, who wouldn't have been able to hear the sirens, was even aware that he was being pulled over). When he finally exited his vehicle, he was shot by Charlotte state trooper Jermaine Saunders, who claims he fired his gun because Harris was moving toward him and not responding to his commands. But onlookers and those who knew Harris say he was just trying to communicate with the officer -- as the victim's brother, Jay Harris, explained to WCNC:

He was unarmed, and he is a deaf individual, and I think that he was just afraid. He could not hear their warnings. He could not hear their commands to stop or to stay away from them. He was shot, and now we're left with nothing.

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Neighbor Mark Barringer agreed that Harris was unfairly targeted. In the New York Daily News, Barringer was quoted as saying:

They should've de-escalated and been trained to realize that this is an entirely different situation. You're pulling someone over who is deaf, they are handicapped. To me, what happened is totally unacceptable.

Totally unacceptable is right. For an unarmed, deaf and mute father to lose his life over a speeding violation is indeed unacceptable. It's unthinkable. Unimaginable. Unbelievable. It is not, however, understandable. Not in any way at all. First of all, even if the state trooper didn't realize that Harris was attempting to speak to him via sign language, why was gunfire his first line of defense? If Harris was signing, the officer must have been able to see that he didn't have a weapon in his hands. Why wouldn't he have attempted a less deadly form of force first? (Saunders has been placed on administrative leave and dashboard and body camera video footage is being reviewed by the authorities to determine what, exactly, went wrong.) 

This case also brings up another, less frequently asked question: Why aren't all police officers trained in American Sign Language or at least have a backup officer who is? Surely those in law enforcement must find themselves dealing with deaf and/or mute individuals on a fairly regular basis. How can they serve and protect these people -- just like every other member of society -- if they can't communicate with them?

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Clearly there needs to be a better system for dealing with the hearing impaired. That's why the family Harris left behind (some of whom are also deaf) are hoping to set up a foundation in his honor that would "educate and provide law enforcement [with] proper training on how to confront deaf people" and help the police identify deaf drivers with an alert which would appear when license plates are run through the system. (As of now, the family has raised more than $20,000 through a fund-raising page to cover the cost of the funeral; any additional donations will be put toward the foundation.) These measures sound like a good start, to be sure. But why aren't they already in place?

Hopefully this horrible loss will, at the very least, be the catalyst for some real and much-needed change. Nothing can bring this young father back to his 4-year-old son, but his death should not be in vain.


Image via The Harris Family/youcaring.com

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