In the early morning hours of January 11, 2019, a group of Arizona police officers in unmarked cars followed a group of teenagers suspected of committing a series of robberies as they drove down a desert road.
Without sounding their sirens or ordering the young drivers to stop, officers sprang into action by using a mechanical grappling hook to ensnare the vehicle, throwing a flashbang grenade that temporarily blinded the occupants, and then firing hail from a handgun and handgun. AR-15 assault rifle to shoot 19-year-old Jacob Harris, who was running from the officers with his back turned. As he hit the ground, officers threw rubber bullets at Harris’ butt, then sent a police dog to attack him.
None of the officers involved in the fatal shooting were charged with any crimes or found to have violated department rules. One remains in Phoenix PD while another has retired with a lucrative pension and works in private law enforcement consulting. Instead, his three companions that night – Jeremiah Triplett, 20; Sarah Busani, 19; and Johnny Reed, 14 – were charged with first-degree murder, taking advantage of a controversial Arizona law that allows prosecutors to charge people with murder if someone dies while committing a crime, even if the death was not their fault.
“The life of a black 19-year-old is worth nothing to the city of Phoenix,” said Roland Harris, Jacob’s father appealwho was investigating the shooting. “Let people see what the police really did to him. It was murder. It was a shooting and then they tortured Jacob.”
Police are investigating the justification for the actions of the two officers who shot Harris, Kristopher Bertz and David Norman. Mr. Harris sued the city in federal court in 2020, but the lawsuit was dismissed.
“The undisputed facts show that Jacob Harris and others he was with were involved in violent incidents, including the pointing of guns at innocent civilians as part of armed robberies. When the police confronted Mr. Harris and others who were with him, Mr. Harris did not give up. Instead, gun in hand, Mr. Harris made other choices,” said Steve Serbalik, a lawyer for Phoenix police officers this year.
Harris’s grieving father said appeal he intends to continue to appeal the lawsuit and has pointed to multiple irregularities in police actions during the shooting and subsequent law enforcement investigation.
The most significant discrepancy in the case is whether Jacob Harris had a gun and pointed it at officers. His family says Harris only had a cell phone in his hand when he was killed.
Phoenix law enforcement gave a different, sometimes contradictory, account of what happened. In an initial press release, the department said Harris “pointed a gun” at officers, while the prosecutor said the teenager “exchanged shots” with officers.
Mr. Bertz, one of the officers involved in the shooting who remains on active duty, made various seemingly inconsistent claims during police questioning and later to testify in the Harris family’s lawsuit.
At various points, the officer described Harris running, stopping, and making “a deliberate movement with his arm looking in my direction”, while also describing how Harris’ alleged gun “never completely reached me”.
The police recording of the meeting shows that Harris is on the run all the time and never shoots the officers. According to the Phoenix PD’s investigation into the incident, a gun purportedly belonging to Harris was found, but no cartridges in the chamber or cartridge cases matching the gun at the crime scene.
“That didn’t happen,” said Judge Suzanne Cohen, who presided over the juveniles’ murder conviction, of the claim that Harris fired at officers. “He didn’t turn around as he ran and point the gun. His body moves in one direction and one direction only.
Other quirks about the case include that officers spent hours watching the group and watched as they allegedly robbed a fast food restaurant before launching the case, and a collection of Whatsapp messages between responding officers were deleted after the 2019 shooting.
Outside observers also noted that officers waited more than 10 minutes before providing any medical treatment to Harris.
“Those few minutes before an EMT arrives can be very important when it comes to saving someone’s life. That’s the problem,” Kenneth Williams of South Texas College of Law Houston told 12news after the shooting. “Many of these shootings are obviously very controversial, and what really adds salt to the wounds of shootings is that often officers do nothing to help the person they shot.”
Both officers involved in the murder of Harris had previously been involved in fatal shootings.
The Phoenix Police Department has killed at least 148 people in the last decade, according to Mapping Police Violence data.
Data shows that black people like Harris are more than twice as likely to be shot by police than white people.
In 2018, the Phoenix Police Department shot more people than any other U.S. law enforcement agency, including much larger departments such as the New York City Police Department.
In 2021, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the department’s practices, and Mr. Harris reportedly met with federal investigators.
One officer, David Norman, shot so many people in the one year before his retirement that it triggered an automatic notification to his supervisor. Phoenix New Times.
“I was fucking wild. I was really looking for these events. I wanted these experiences. I was very aggressive,” Norman said on a 2021 police-themed podcast. “For most of my career, you have a shootout involving an officer and you get three days off … So you hope it’s your Friday.”
Critics have argued that laws such as the Arizona Murder Act allow police officers to cover up bad behavior.
“Accusing co-offenders in these cases all too often provides police officers with protection in cases where shootings violate department policies or are otherwise unjustified,” Steve Drizin, a professor in Northwestern University’s law school, told BuzzFeed. “The rules are being used to justify decisions not to discipline police officers.”