Community members in Charlotte, North Carolina, say police officers’ poor communication skills are to blame for the shooting death of a 29-year-old motorist who was deaf and speech impairments.
Daniel Kevin Harris was driving near his Charlotte home on Thursday when a North Carolina state trooper fatally shot him.
When Harris eventually stopped and emerged from the vehicle, there was an “encounter,” as the highway patrol called it, and Saunders fired a shot, killing Harris at the scene.
“If the officer had known he was deaf, it would have ended differently,” Daniel Harris’ brother, Sam Harris, told Reuters via an interpreter on Monday. “He would still be around with family and life would still be going on.”
Department of Public Safety Secretary Frank Perry on Tuesday issued a statement pleading for the public to avoid a rush to judgement.
“Any loss of life regardless of the circumstances is truly a tragic and sad event for all involved,” Perry said. “Let us all refrain from making assumptions or drawing conclusions prior to the internal and independent reviews.”
Per department protocol, Saunders was placed on administrative leave after the incident.
The North Carolina DPS did not immediately respond to requests for further details of the incident and has not verified whether Saunders was aware Harris was deaf or had speech impairments.
The National Association of the Deaf in a statement Tuesday called Harris’ death “wrong” and called on law enforcement to improve their training to better understand how to interact with a deaf person.
“We express our heartfelt apologies to Daniel’s family and the deaf and hard of hearing community. Daniel isn’t the first deaf person who was wrongfully shot by the police,” NAD President Melissa Draganac-Hawk said in a signed video statement. “All police departments in every state should undergo appropriate training to learn best practices when faced with a deaf person. If a person does not respond to verbal commands, the police needs to be aware of the possibility that the person may be deaf and not react by shooting. All police departments must work with us to improve and avoid this from happening again.”
State Highway Patrol provided the Observer with the basic training guide given to officers and indicated state law enforcement is trained to recognize individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing or have conditions like autism and Alzheimer’s.
The training guide reportedly instructs officers to keep their eyes on people’s hands, and notes that 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.”
People who are deaf or hard of hearing are not prohibited from having a driver’s license in North Carolina.
The World Federation of the Deaf has previously noted that deaf drivers are not a greater road risk than motorists with normal hearing, and said hearing is not an essential sense for safely driving.
“For example, it is possible to check by sense of touch whether the car horn functions or not, also it is possible to use visual means during driving, and seeing the ambulance or police vehicles’ lights flashing,” the group stated.
Drivers who are deaf can obtains special cards to give to law enforcement to communicate their impairment, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
“State and local law enforcement officers throughout North Carolina are trained to recognize the card and understand its purpose,” the agency states.
Regardless of current procedure, Harris indicated law enforcement must do better by the deaf and hard of hearing community.
“It’s about law enforcement awareness, of communicating and interacting with deaf people before something awful happens and someone is shot and killed and is dead,” Harris said.