The fatal shooting of Eric Harris last month sparked protests — and an FBI civil rights inquiry — amid claims that Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies overreacted when they opened fire on Harris in Central City following a chase that began on the West Bank.
The criminal investigation remains ongoing, and numerous questions still surround the Feb. 8 incident.
But surveillance footage obtained Tuesday by The New Orleans Advocate appears to confirm the Sheriff’s Office’s contention that Harris, after crashing near the intersection of Simon Bolivar Avenue and Philip Street, shifted his vehicle into reverse and backed up a short distance, in the direction of at least one deputy.
It remains to be seen what role that maneuver — the car then briefly hurtled forward, away from a JPSO vehicle — will have in deciding the question of whether the shooting was justifiable. Also unclear from the grainy footage is exactly when deputies opened fire and where they stood in relation to Harris.
But the footage, captured by a surveillance camera on Philip Street, appears to contradict the account of Harris’ girlfriend, Tyshara Blouin, who was a passenger in the car and insisted after the shooting that Harris had not shifted into reverse. Blouin, 23, told The Advocate her boyfriend had been too “dazed up” at the time to operate the vehicle.
“I never saw him try to back up,” she said. “As soon as (Harris) asked me if I was all right, they started shooting at the car. I just felt like they was mad that they chased us.”
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand told reporters the night of the shooting that his deputies had reacted to seeing the reverse lights activate on Harris’ vehicle. “At that point in time, the officers opened fire,” he said.
Normand declined to comment on the surveillance footage Tuesday, citing the ongoing investigation.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that use of force by police must be “objectively reasonable,” under the circumstances of a particular incident, in order to be lawful. The deputies in the Harris shooting have said they feared for their safety when the vehicle began moving in reverse.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office policy differs from that of the New Orleans Police Department in that it does not require the use of a second form of force — aside from the vehicle — to justify deputies opening fire during a pursuit.
JPSO policy also states that deputies “in extreme situations (may) be forced to employ methods or weapons not commonly accepted for law enforcement. The guiding factor should be whether the weapon or technique was reasonable under the circumstances.”
Gary Bizal, an attorney representing Harris’ family, viewed the footage at the request of The Advocate. He said the video represents an incomplete account of the incident.
“From a civil rights standpoint, the video fails to establish one way or the other that the shooting was justified,” Bizal said. “We’re waiting to see what the other videos show.”
The surveillance camera in question was behind the Central City Behavioral Health Clinic on Philip Street. It was released by the Metropolitan Human Services District in response to a public-records request from The Advocate.
The footage offers the first public images of the incident. JPSO deputies, unlike New Orleans police officers, do not wear body cameras or use dashboard cameras in their cars.
Additional footage from the adjacent Crescent City Pharmacy has been turned over to the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau, though it is unclear what it shows.
Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the Orleans Parish coroner, has said Harris suffered gunshot wounds to the base of his neck, left shoulder and part of his skull.
The deputies began chasing Harris after a group of women told a deputy at the Oakwood Mall that Harris had pointed a gun at them. Harris fled and led deputies on a chase across the Crescent City Connection into New Orleans.
Blouin, the girlfriend, was later booked on counts of being an accessory after the fact to aggravated assault with a firearm and of possession of a firearm while possessing a controlled dangerous substance.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.