Family of Jacob Harris Files Lawsuit, Says Officer Lied to Grand Jury

Jacob Harris
Jacob Harris Roland Harris
click to enlarge Jacob Harris - ROLAND HARRIS
Jacob Harris
Roland Harris
It's been nearly a year since 19-year-old Jacob Harris was shot and killed by Phoenix police, and his family says the department still hasn't been truthful about the circumstances surrounding the fateful incident.

Now, Harris' family has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city of Phoenix and is holding a press conference later today to reveal new information in the case.

A press release sent out by a representative of the family, Jarrett Maupin, claims that a Phoenix police officer lied to a grand jury in "a case related to this claim," possibly meaning the criminal case against the three young people who accompanied Harris the night he was killed.

“They [Phoenix Police] killed my son and broke the law to do it," said Jacob Harris' father, Roland Harris, in the release. "Officer Norman and Officer Bertz must be held accountable for their actions and the facts prove that they violated policy and procedure. The facts prove they shot my teenage son in the back. The facts prove that Jacob was never a threat to their safety or the public. This is an injustice.”

Roland Harris filed a $6 million notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, against the city in June. He repeatedly has called for the officers involved to be fired, citing their histories of using lethal force. Since his son's death, Roland Harris also repeatedly has asked the department to release the remaining footage of his son's final moments.

The lawsuit, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court on December 13, 2019, highlights the differences between statements made by Phoenix police officers about the shooting and what helicopter footage of the incident shows.

On January 11, 2019, Jacob Harris and two of his friends, 20-year-old Jeremiah Triplett, and a 14-year-old boy holding a pellet gun, broke into a Whataburger on North Dysart Road in Avondale. The 14-year-old directed an employee to a back room and told him to open a safe.

Police were watching the whole time. They had been surveilling the group all day, believing they were connected to a string of robberies targeting places like Whataburger and Circle K stores.

Harris and the others then left the Whataburger and returned to the Honda Passport waiting nearby with another friend, 19-year-old Sariah Busani, who acted as their getaway driver. Six unmarked cars driven by members of the Phoenix Police Department's Special Assignment Unit followed the Passport for 10 miles, a police report shows.

Outside a Circle K at West Camelback Road and North 91st Avenue, Phoenix police officer David Norman drew closer to the vehicle and deployed a device that seized the back left tire, disabling it. Police had not turned on their lights or sirens and had not engaged in a high-speed chase prior to deploying the vehicle-disabling device. A civilian who was driving near the police vehicles was forced to stop short, caught in the middle of the police and the small SUV they were tailing.

One officer threw a flash grenade. Another mistook it for gunfire. On the dimly lit roadside, Jacob Harris opened the Passport's rear passenger door and sprinted away from the officers. He took seven steps before two Phoenix police officers gunned him down. It was 12:22 a.m. Three seconds after exiting the vehicle, Harris was shot in his liver, lung, and heart. Within an hour, he was dead.

Police say the shooting was justified. They say that Harris had a gun and they were in fear for their life. But video footage of the incident — mistakenly released to 12 News (KPNX-TV) — doesn't appear to match officers' descriptions of the event, and the 120-page police report and 80-plus pages of court records in the case against Triplett, the 14-year-old, and Busani, are rife with inconsistencies.

The video shows Harris getting out of the Passport and sprinting away. Harris does not appear to stop or look back or turn at any point in the video. He appears to be fleeing, and the autopsy report shows Harris was shot twice in the back.

Maupin's press release claims Harris was "unarmed" and that "witness accounts say Harris had nothing in his hands."

Yet Harris did appear to be armed; he can be seen dropping something in the video after being shot. Pressed about whether Harris ever fired at officers during grand jury proceedings in the case against Harris' friends, a Phoenix police detective said, "there was not a round in the chamber and a casing was not found, so we don't believe he fired a shot."

Kristopher Bertz, the Phoenix police officer who fired seven shots from his rifle at Harris, said in the police report that while Harris was running away, he "turn[ed] slightly to his right, making a deliberate manner with the handgun, in his right hand, toward" the officer. He said that's when he shot Harris.

Yet, the lawsuit filed by the family last month says that "video taken from a helicopter clearly shows that Jacob Harris did not turn slightly to his right, make a deliberate manner with the handgun, or make any other threatening gesture, but was simply running away without any turning movements at all when he was shot with a rifle in the back."

After Harris fell to the ground, another officer shot him with nonlethal rounds. To get Harris away from the gun, police released a K-9, which bit Harris' ankle and dragged him back toward police.

At this time, Harris was still alive. Police handcuffed him. The other three passengers had surrendered peacefully and were taken into custody. While waiting for the fire department to arrive to transport Harris to the hospital, an officer treated one of Harris' bullet wounds with an occlusive dressing, which provides an airtight seal to the wound.

Forty-one minutes later, Harris died. Now, Triplett, Busani, and the 14-year-old who accompanied them are being charged with murder. Police reports indicate that Harris was charged with aggravated assault on an officer, but the case was cleared when he died.

"In the video, Jacob Harris clearly runs directly away from officers for approximately seven steps. Never turns towards the officers, never points a weapon at the officers, and was shot in the back," wrote Sariah Busani's defense attorney, Adrian Little, in court filings. "He did not receive medical attention for over ten minutes; instead, he was shot with a riot gun three times while he lay on the ground and was then dragged several yards by a K-9 unit after being fatally wounded."

The police officers who killed Jacob Harris have each shot and killed people before. According to a database of statewide police shootings created by the Arizona Republic, Bertz shot and killed 38-year-old Erik Pamias in 2017, who police said tried to "ram" them with a vehicle he was driving. David Norman killed one man in 2014 and another in March 2018. Three months later, Norman shot another man, but he lived. Police claimed these shootings were also valid.

“The facts prove that my clients’ loved one was murdered by the officers involved. Jacob posed no threat to the officers when they decided, against all proper training and policy, to shoot him in the back multiple times," said former Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, attorney for the Harris family. "As we can see, on film, Jacob never threatened the police, Jacob never pointed a weapon at police, Jacob never stopped running. He was gunned down and the police are responsible for his wrongful death and for engaging in deadly misconduct."

The Arizona Republic reported in late June that the Phoenix police report on the shooting was submitted to the Maricopa County Attorney's office on February 7, 2019, but the office had not yet decided whether to file criminal charges against the officers.

The county attorney's office did not immediately respond when asked if they had made a charging decision in the case now, almost one year later.
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Meg O'Connor was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from April 2019 to April 2020.