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Footage from a Dallas police officer's body camera shows the fatal shooting of a mentally ill man who was holding a screwdriver, raising questions about the use of deadly force by police in such encounters.
Video released Monday shows Dallas police officers John Rogers and Andrew Hutchins shooting 39-year-old Jason Harrison on June 14, 2014. Harrison's family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit (viewable below) against the two officers, claiming they violated his civil rights.
Geoff Henley, the Harrison family's lawyer, told VICE News that Harrison had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and was in the middle of a mental breakdown when police arrived on the scene, a scenario that had unfolded several times in the past.
Harrison's mother phoned 911 for assistance, claiming her son was off his medication, acting aggressively, and making "violent threats."
In the video, Harrison's mother, Shirley Marshall Harrison, exits the family's home a few moments after police arrive on the scene. She can be heard telling the officers that her son is "bipolar and schizo" and acting "off the chain."
Harrison emerges a few moments later and stands in the doorframe twirling a screwdriver in his hands. The officers can be heard asking, "Can you drop that for me guy?" before quickly drawing their guns and repeatedly shouting for Harrison to put down the screwdriver. Seconds later, Harrison appears to take a step forward before the officers open fire. Harrison then stumbles and falls facedown on the ground near the wall of an adjacent garage.
"He was in the doorway. He had a screwdriver. We had this behind us and we had to shoot," one officer can be heard saying as he gestures at the garage wall.
According to Henley, the two officers fired a total of five shots. The attorney said Harrison was not provoking the police. "We believe he was trying to avoid a confrontation, not pursue one of the officers, when this first happened the tape was never released and one officer said he [Harrison] lunged at the other officer," he said.
"What you can tell is that he did not lunge at the guy that had the body cam, you don't see that on tape, that's one of the first things we found suspicious about the account," he added.
The Harrison family's lawsuit notes that police did not attempt to use their stun guns or other less lethal weapons. The family has also said that police agitated Harrison by yelling at him.
"They didn't acknowledge him... they just acknowledged the screwdriver," David Harrison, Jason's older brother, said in a press conference. "As soon as [my mother] got out of the way, [the officers said] 'I need you to put that down, sir!' It went from zero to 100."
Henley seconded that assessment, saying police made matters worse by shouting.
"If you have a grease fire, you don't throw water on it, it will cause the fire to spread," Henley said. "One of the officers spread the grease fire."
The Dallas Police Department could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Chris Livingston, an attorney for the two officers involved in the shooting, told the Dallas Morning News that his clients feared for their lives when they saw the screwdriver. He said that killing someone with a screwdriver would be "pretty easy. It'll only take one blow."
The footage of Harrison's death was made public at a time when police nationwide have faced increased scrutiny for using deadly force, particularly during interactions with people who are mentally ill. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement requires police officers to undergo crisis intervention training at least once every four years.
"It is a complex problem, officers are trained in a completely different manner to take control, be assertive, and use the power of your voice to control a circumstance," Henley said. "That's their default position. But when you are talking to a person who has a mental illness, you got to go the other way."
Daniel Gugala, vice president of the Crisis Prevention Institute, a company that provides training to safely manage aggressive behavior, told VICE News that one of the worst ways an officer can handle a situation involving a mentally ill person is by "not recognizing that the person has a mental deficit."
"If you try to treat them in the same way to treat an average person, that could cause a problems and communication issues," Gugala said. "The lack of awareness to them can create a challenge in itself."
A Dallas police spokesman told the Dallas Morning News that a criminal investigation into the shooting of Harrison has been completed, and that the case has been forwarded to the Dallas County district attorney's office for possible criminal charges. The police department's internal investigators are reportedly still reviewing the case to see if the officers violated any policies. Rogers and Hutchins remain on active duty.
Follow Arijeta Lajka on Twitter: @arijetalajka