Phoenix police gunned down a Black teenager – but his friends were charged with murder

Law enforcement officers in Phoenix, Arizona  (Getty Images)
Law enforcement officers in Phoenix, Arizona (Getty Images)

In the early morning hours of 11 January, 2019, a group of police officers in Arizona in unmarked cars tailed a group of teenagers suspected of committing a string of robberies as they drove down a desert road.

Without ever turning on their sirens or telling the youths to pull over, officers leapt into action, using a mechanical grappling hook to ensnare the vehicle, throwing a flash grenade that temporarily blinded the passengers, then unleashing a hail of gunfire with a pistol and an AR-15-style assault rifle to gun down Jacob Harris, 19, as he fled from officers with his back turned. Once he hit the ground, officers pelted Harris with rubber bullets to the backside, 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 policy. One remains with the 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; Sariah Busani, 19; and Johnny Reed, 14 – were charged with first-degree murder, using a controversial Arizona law allowing prosecutors to charge people with murder if someone dies during the commission of a felony, even if the death wasn’t their fault.

“A Black 19-year-old child’s life is worth nothing to the city of Phoenix,” Roland Harris, Jacob’s father, told The Appeal, which investigated the shooting. “Let people see what police really did to him. It was murder. It was a shooting and then they tortured Jacob afterwards.”

A police investigation the actions of the two officers who fired on Harris, Kristopher Bertz and David Norman, to be justified. Mr Harris sued the city in federal court in 2020, but the suit was dismissed.

“The undisputed facts show that Jacob Harris and others that he was with were involved in violent incidents, including pointing guns at innocent civilians as part of armed robberies. When the police confronted Mr. Harris and the others who were with him, Mr. Harris did not surrender. Instead, with a gun in his hand, Mr. Harris made other choices," Steve Serbalik, an attorney for the Phoenix police officers, said that year.

Harris’s grieving father told The Appeal he intends to keep appealing the suit, and pointed to what he said were multiple irregularities with the police actions during the shooting and the law enforcement investigation that followed.

The most important discrepancy in the case centres around whether Jacob Harris had a gun and pointed it at officers. His family says Harris only had a cell phone in hand while he was killed.

Phoenix law enforcement have offered a different, and at times contradictory, account of what happened. In an initial press release, the department said Harris “pointed his gun” at officers,” while a prosecutor said the teen “exchanged gunfire” with officers.

Mr Bertz, one of the officers involved in the shooting, who remains on active duty, made various seemingly inconsistent claims in interviews for the police investigation and later for a deposition in the suit from the Harris family.

At various points, the officer described Harris fleeing, stopping in his tracks, and making a “deliberate movement with his arm looking back in my direction,” while also describing how Harris’s alleged gun “never got fully up on me”.

Police footage of the encounter shows Harris running away the entire time and never firing at officers. According to the Phoenix PD investigation of the incident, a gun allegedly belonging to Harris was found, but without any rounds in the chamber or casings matching the weapon at the crime scene.

“That did not happen,” Judge Suzanne Cohen, who presided over the murder conviction of the youths, said of the claim Harris fired at officers . “He did not turn as he was running and point the gun. His body is going in one direction and one direction only.”

Other oddities about the case include that officers spent hours surveilling the group, and watched them allegedly rob a fast food restaurant, before initiating a case, and a trove of Whatsapp messages between the responding officers was deleted following the 2019 shooting.

Outside observers also noted officers waited upwards of 10 minutes before rendering Harris any medical aid

“Those few minutes before EMT arrives could be very crucial in terms of saving someone’s life. That’s the concern there," Kenneth Williams of the South Texas College of Law Houston told 12news after the shooting. “A lot of these shootings are obviously very controversial and what really adds salt to the wounds of the shootings is the fact that oftentimes officers don’t do anything to aid the person they’ve shot.”

Both officers involved in the killing of Harris have previously been involved in fatal shootings.

The Phoenix Police Department has killed at least 148 people in the last decade, according to data from Mapping Police Violence.

Black people, like Harris, are more than twice as likely to be shot by police than white people, according to the data.

In 2018, the Phoenix Police Department shot more people than any other law enforcement agency in the US, including far larger departments like the New York Police Department.

In 2021, the Department of Justicelaunched an investigation into the department’s practices, and Mr Harris has reportedly met with federal investigators.

One of the officers, David Norman, shot at so many people in one year before he retired that it triggered an automatic alert to his supervisor, according to the Phoenix New Times.

“I was a f***ing savage. I really sought these events. I wanted these experiences. I was super aggressive,” Mr Norman said on police-themed podcast in 2021. “The majority of my career, you get an officer-involved shooting and get three days off … So you kind of hope it’s on your Friday.”

Critics have argued laws like Arizona’s felony murder statute allow police officers to cover up bad behaviour.

“Charging the co-felons in these cases all too often provides police officers with cover in cases where the shootings are in violation of departmental policies or are otherwise unjustified,” Steve Drizin, a professor at Northwestern University’s law school, told BuzzFeed. “The laws are used to justify decisions not to discipline police officers.”