By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
A thirty-six-year-old man who suffered a catastrophic brain injury as a result of a use of force by a King County Washington sheriff’s deputy in 2009 has died as a result of his injuries, according to a Thurston County forensic pathologist. The coroner’s office determined the death to be caused by a homicide. This does not necessarily mean that the homicide was criminal in nature. It means that the death was caused as a result of a person and is not necessarily criminal nature. Such a determination is within the purview of the County Prosecutor’s Office.
I find the use of force to be troubling, however the deputy was cleared by both an internal affairs investigation and a review by the County prosecutor’s office. I do not agree with the findings of the IA but I recognize it would have been a difficult criminal case presented to a jury.
The incident began after Christopher Harris ran from deputies who had mistaken him for a suspect at a local cinema. After a chase spanning several blocks Harris stopped and turned, facing the deputy. A moment later one of the deputies shoved Harris backward whereupon his head impacted a concrete wall apparently rendering him unconscious.
A video of the incident may be viewed HERE.
While the incident could be construed as a flight from a Terry stop which the state Supreme Court ruled as violating the state statute for obstructing a law enforcement officer, I don’t believe the use of force could be justified based upon the totality of the circumstances.
First, from the information presented I am not convinced that events leading to the use of force was sufficient to justify the amount of force used, given the location at which it occurred, in so far as a shove on a sidewalk into a concrete wall is to be pronounced reasonable. Had this instead been an situation involving the use of a weapon against the officer or other persons I could understand and perhaps excuse the amount of force used as it would likely necessary to quickly subdue suspect. Mitigating circumstance might have been raised that the deputies involved had believed at the time of occurrence that Mr. Harris was involved in criminal activity. Nevertheless we have to look at circumstances in which the use of force was used.
It is well known to officers and any person in general that a sudden fall to concrete is likely to result in great injury. In fact the state Supreme Court had ruled previously, though I don’t believe it was before this incident had occurred, that slamming a person’s head to concrete floor could be considered a felony assault where the floor was in fact a weapon.
I did not see in the surveillance video and it was not reported that Mr. Harris was attempting to draw weapon when he turned to face the deputy.
If we could use the example of training with a Taser, the instructions are that caution should be used one deploying a Taser against a suspect while the suspect is on concrete or is moving or running on the concrete. A Taser was not used in this incident but it could further be used as evidence that the deputy’s training should have encouraged him to not use such force into a concrete structure.
Wile hindsight can always be more clear than in the field, I believe in this case the deputy should of known that the amount of force used against the person was not necessary as he had stopped and in his stance made him extremely vulnerable to injury given the type of force the deputy intended to use against Mr. Harris. A more reasonable use of force would have been to take hold of Mr. Harris and put him to the ground in a manner unlikely to cause injury to him. Given the two block flight, putting him on the ground is the reasonable approach as it would minimize the possibility of flight and combat with the officers.
The second act that I consider an unreasonable force was setting up and dragging Mr. Harris into a cuffing position having seen an obvious injury that rendered him unconscious. But more importantly from the angle in which he had impacted the wall it presented a high probability of a catastrophic neck injury where further movement of Mr. Harris could have greatly increased his vulnerability to paralysis and death. I understand that officers do not have an x-ray or an MRI device to determine if the neck injury had occurred in the field, they should have known that moving a person in this type of situation regardless if it was criminal in nature or an accident could lead to catastrophic neck injury. Had the striking against the wall been caused by a person being ejected from an automobile, and the deputies had seen this, I very much doubt that they would of moved Mr. Harris as they did and instead would have immobilized him and waited for an EMS crew to put a cervical collar on him and place him atop a backboard.
In 2011 King County agreed to pay to Mr. Harris a $10 million settlement after a tort claim filed on behalf of his wife Sarah. In her complaint she accused the King County Sheriff’s deputy of using excessive force and was negligent.
Following the incident, Mr. Harris suffered since 2009’s dramatic and catastrophic brain injuries rendering him totally disabled and removing him from an otherwise healthy lifestyle. He recently died consequent to those initial injuries according to the pathology report stemmed from “acute and chronic pneumonia of the lungs, due to medical sequelae, due to blunt head trauma.”
By Darren Smith
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