Was the deadly shooting of Eric Harris by JPSO deputies justified?

This article originally appeared in The Louisiana Weekly on February 29th, 2016. Click here to view the digital version.

By C.C. Campbell-Rock

One minute Eric Harris, 22, was shopping at the Oakwood Mall on Lundi Gras and shortly after was shot dead by Jefferson Parish Sheriff Office (JPSO) Deputies Kenneth Bonura and Henry DeJean in Orleans Parish. A coalition of concerned citizens and grassroots organizations, including Justice & Beyond, BYP-100, The Workers Center and others are demanding justice for Harris, who they believe was killed without justification.

“This case has been preliminary medically classified as a homicide,” said Dr. Jeffery C. Rouse, New Orleans Medical Examiner, in a statement.

“On Monday, February 8, Eric Harris, a 22-year-old African-American male, expired from multiple gunshot wounds in an incident with Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies in Central City New Orleans. Preliminary autopsy results revealed probable entrance wounds to the right axillary area, the rear base of the neck, the left shoulder, and the right post auricular area of the skull. Additional projectile wounds were observed to the left lower jaw and the right thumb. Four bullets and several fragments were recovered and placed into evidence with the New Orleans Police Department for possible ballistic testing,” according to the medical examiner’s statement.

The killing touched off a joint task force investigation by the NOPD Public Integrity Bureau (PIB) the NOPD’s Force Investigation Team (FIT), and the FBI.

According to those close to the families involved, Harris got into an argument with an ex-girlfriend at the Oakwood Mall. The former girlfriend then told a security guard, who was allegedly a JPSO deputy working a security detail, that Harris had a gun. Harris and his current girlfriend Tyshara Blouin, 23, left the mall and were pursued by two JPSO cars and the chase ended on Phillip Street in the Central City area of New Orleans, when one deputy’s car allegedly ramrodded their car pushing it off the street between a house and utility pole. What occurred next is questionable, but Harris was shot multiple times and pronounced dead at the scene. Blouin was taken to the hospital and treated for minor injuries.

“It is emphatically clear that police officers’ version is a fabrication,” said Randolph Scott, a community organizer and industrial security expert. Scott questioned whether the deputies’ statement that they feared for their lives is true. According to the deputies’ version of events, Harris threw his car in reverse and they feared they would be run over.

In a meeting with witnesses and Harris’ girlfriend, Tyshara Blouin, Scott collected the following eyewitness account, “It was stated that the car was hit in the rear by the police vehicle causing the vehicle to hit the utility pole. After the car hit the utility pole, Mr. Harris asked his passenger, ‘Are you OK?’ She responded that she was OK and immediately the police started shooting, killing Mr. Harris. Blouin told Scott, “The police handcuffed his arms to the steering wheel knowing that he was dying or already dead.”

“The police were using profanity in communicating instructions to the young lady to get out of the car…The passenger indicated that there was no time to do anything between the impact of the car with the utility pole and the police shooting into the vehicle…The police gave no commands prior to shooting into the vehicle,” Randolph said in an email to law enforcement officials and investigators. “It is imperative that the PIB, Police Monitor, FBI, Consent Decree Monitors get involved and investigate this matter quickly. The shooting was wrong. It was an unjustifiable shooting by the police, according to the information provided by this young lady,” Scott concluded.

“Deputies told police they followed Harris to Philip Street where Harris’ vehicle came to a stop. The deputies told police they then fired shots at the vehicle after they felt they were in danger. EMS pronounced Harris dead on the scene. Police questioned the female passenger and released her later that evening. She was treated at the hospital for minor injuries. She has not been booked on any charges related to the incident.

“Detectives confiscated both service weapons from the deputies as well as a glock handgun from inside of Harris’ vehicle. Detectives also recovered a total of nine casings from the scene. All evidence recovered from the scene is being analyzed as part of the on-going criminal investigation,” according to a Feb 10, 2016 NOPD press release.

But on February 17, 2016, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office did arrest Blouin.

According to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Sheriff’s office is still investigating the Oakwood Mall incident. “As the investigation into the incident that initiated at Oakwood Mall on Monday, February 8, 2016 continues, our investigators have determined that Tyshara Blouin was the registered owner of the vehicle that she and Eric Harris were riding in. A search warrant was executed on Blouin’s vehicle which resulted in the recovery of a firearm along with a small quantity of heroin.

“Surveillance video obtained from Oakwood Mall indicates that Tyshara Blouin was complicit in Harris’ escape. Therefore, Tyshara Blouin was booked into the JPCC today with one count each of Accessory After the Fact to Aggravated Assault with a Firearm along with Possession of a Firearm while in Possession of a Controlled Dangerous Substance,” Colonel John N. Fortunato, JPSO public information officer wrote in an email to The Louisiana Weekly.

“The Sheriff is not available at this time. With that said, we continue to stay in constant contact with our Federal partners as well as the NOPD, therefore, our response would be: We will not be commenting further, as this investigation remains ongoing,” Fortunato added.

Fortunato admitted that the JPSO does have a policy in place for car chases, but declined to provide details. Also, unlike NOPD, the JPSO does not have a de-escalation policy nor does its deputies wear body cams or use dashboard cams. Fortunato declined to say whether either officer has been placed on administrative leave or is facing any other disciplinary action.

Blouin was held under a $400,000 bond and her family had to pay $3,000 to bail her out the day after she was arrested.

“It is a very questionable shooting. They haven’t said he reached for a gun,” said Attorney Gary Bizal, who is representing both the Harris and Blouin families.

“I spoke to the witness in the car. Truth is, when the cops followed him (Eric), they didn’t know who he was. Sheriff Newell Normand puts the rap sheet out because he wanted to justify the shooting by implying he was a bad guy. Whether he had a gun in the car or not, no one said they saw a gun. There is no justification whatsoever for the shooting,” Bizal continued.

Although Eric Harris’ rap sheet was initially released by JPSO, the office did not provide the same document to The Louisiana Weekly.

Bizal added, “It is socially irresponsible for when you have money not to require body cams. There is no reason not to use cameras, unless you have something to hide.” The attorney has asked the FBI and the Department of Justice to do a criminal investigation.

However, the FBI interviewed Blouin before she was arrested and video footage has been obtained from surrounding businesses.

At press time, Blouin, a young mother of two, a five-year-old daughter and Eric’s two-year-old son, was trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She works and is going to school. “I’m studying phlebotomy,” Blouin says. “I feel like he didn’t deserve to get his life taken away,” she says of Eric.

“They juggled with my life and also they have made life hard for me. I have no car and I moved out of my house and I am struggling with two kids on my own. But I’m a child of God and God left me here for a reason and I’m taking everything one day at a time to try and get my life back on track,” Blouin says, while showing remarkable courage for such a young woman.

The family has set up a Go Fund Me account for her legal defense and to help her move forward. Donations can be made at http;//www.gofundme.com/9z9dvm58JusticeforEricHarris.

“I think it’s wrong,” said Tanya Blouin, Tyshara’s mother, about her daughter’s arrest and bond. “She shouldn’t have had to pay.” Of Eric Harris’ killing, Blouin said, “They had no business shooting him. They didn’t have to kill him. They never got out of the car. They endangered my baby girl’s life.”

Blouin said her daughter told her that Eric ran from police because he was on probation and he didn’t want to go to jail.

Harris’ death was the first item on the Consent Decree review in federal court this month. District Judge Susie Morgan queried PIB Chief Arlinda Westbrook about the circumstances that led to Harris being shot multiple times by Jefferson Parish deputies.
Meanwhile, the community has galvanized around the families and are seeking #JusticeforEricHarris and others murdered by police in Orleans Parish.

The coalition of concerned citizens recently held a fourth action, a Protest Rally and Candlelight Vigil to send a message to Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon A. Cannizzaro Jr. that they want the JPSO deputies Bonura and DeJean criminally prosecuted for the Eric Harris’ homicide and that All Lives Matter in New Orleans.

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