On January 11, 2019, a 19-year-old African American teenager named Jacob Harris was gunned down by law enforcement officers with the Phoenix Police Department (PhxPD). Two officers, in particular, repeatedly fired their pistol and an AR-15 assault rifle at the teenager after he exited a vehicle and attempted to flee. Their bullets pierced his heart, lungs, and intestines. The officers then repeatedly sprayed his backside and face with rubber bullets as he lay face down, dying. Not satisfied, the officers then sicced a police dog on the teenager’s dead body.
The events leading up to Harris’ fatal police encounter began with the officers driving in an unmarked vehicle, tailing a vehicle occupied by Harris and three other youths. The officers believed the young men were involved in a string of robberies in the Phoenix area.
Over a 12-hour period, the officers maintained their surveillance until the group committed a robbery at a local What-A-Burger restaurant. The officers watched the robbery play out, despite the danger in which it may have placed customers. They followed the vehicle down a desert dirt road outside of Phoenix before they decided to make an arrest.
Without activating any siren alert, the officers ensnared the youths’ vehicle with a hooking device bringing it to a stop, after which they rushed the car and threw a flash grenade inside, stunning the occupants.
At that point, Harris exited the vehicle and attempted to flee.
Two officers involved in the fatal shooting, Kristopher Bertz and David Norman, gave conflicting statements about how that shooting unfolded. Bertz claimed Harris was armed with a weapon and pointed it at the officers as he fled. The officers found a gun at the scene, but it had no rounds in it and was never linked to Harris or anyone else in the vehicle.
Phoenix Criminal Court Judge Sarah Cohen later found that Harris did not point a gun at the officers as he ran away.
The PhxPD and Maricopa County District Attorney’s Office conducted joint investigations that found the officers acted within police policy in connection with the shooting death of Harris.
Bertz remains on active duty with the police department, while Norman has resigned. He resigned after he shot at so many people the year before that it triggered an alert by his supervisor, as The Phoenix New Times reported.
Following his resignation, Norman told the cop-oriented podcast, The Modern Cop, that:
“I was a f***ing savage. I really sought these events [like Jacob Harris]. I wanted these experiences. I was super aggressive. 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.”
In October 2021, a federal district court judge dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Jacob Harris’ father, Roland, against Bertz and Norman, as well as against the City of Phoenix.
That case is currently on appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Notwithstanding the dismissal of that lawsuit, the PhxPD is one of the nation’s most violent law enforcement agencies.
In the decade preceding Harris’ shooting death, the PhxPD killed 148 people, according to data from Mapping Police Violence.
In 2018, the year before Harris’ shooting death, the PhxPD shot more people than any law enforcement agency nationwide.
This horrific level of police-on-citizen violence and other discriminatory policing practices forced the U.S. Justice Department to launch a civil rights investigation of the PhxPD and the City of Phoenix.
So how did the Maricopa County District Attorney’s Office respond after clearing lying officer Bertz and self-described “savage” officer Norman?
They charged Jacob Harris’ three companions in the vehicle—Jeremiah Triplett, 20; Sariah Busani, 19; and Johnny Reed, 14;–with murder under the state’s “felony murder statute”—a controversial “law of parties” doctrine that permits prosecutors in at least thirteen states, including Texas, to charge any party associated with a crime that results in someone’s death, including suspects killed by police, with felony murder.
Texas is the only state that allows the death penalty under the law of parties if the jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual intentionally caused death or could reasonably foresee someone’s death during the commission or attempted commission of a felony. This means a non-shooter can be put to death if it was reasonably foreseeable someone might be killed during the commission of a felony. This includes co-conspirators killed by police.
In August 2021, BuzzFeed News reported that 22 people had been charged with felony murder for deaths caused by police since 2010, of which 13 were convicted.
Since the savage murder of Jacob Harris, the PhxPD, and the Maricopa County District Attorney’s Office have done everything, legal and illegal, to cover up the facts surrounding the teenager’s death.
But one year after his son’s murder, Roland Harris delivered this message to the PhxPD through the local media:
“I’m not a weak man, and I want to tell David Norman and Officer Bertz [that] you murdered the wrong kid this time. Your days are over. You just don’t know it yet. You can count your days, enjoy your time as a police officer because it’s coming to an end. We allow these officers to get away with that we believe the stories they tell. Had I not spoken, up we wouldn’t be here today.”
The attorney representing the PhxPD, Steve Serbalik, told the same media outlet:
“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 hand, Mr. Harris made other choices. Members of the Phoenix Police Special Assignment Unit, including Norman and Bertz, always hope suspects will not commit crimes and, if suspects are confronted by police, that they will peacefully surrender. In this case, it was the actions of Mr. Harris and the other suspects with him who engaged in dangerous felonies that led to this result.”
Attorney Serbalik’s statement is filled with so many misrepresentations and distorted facts that it begs a response.
First, Harris and his three companions had not been arrested for or convicted of, any armed robberies before the What-A-Burger robbery. The special crimes unit simply “suspected” that they had been involved in other robberies.
Second, whatever danger the “innocent civilians” were placed in during the What-A-Burger robbery, the officers were complicit in it because they watched the robbery unfold and take place.
Third, all the suspects could not have been armed during the What-A-Burger robbery. The police found one gun at the scene of the arrest. That gun was empty, and there were no bullet casings that fit the gun.
Fourth, the officers did not activate their sirens to signal to the occupants of the Harris vehicle that they were law enforcement officers. They simply ensnared the vehicle with a hook, charged the vehicle unannounced as police, threw a stun grenade inside the vehicle, and murdered Harris when he exited the vehicle and attempted to flee.
Fifth, and finally, the officers, particularly Norman and Bertz, sprayed Harris’ limp body, as it lay face down, with rubber bullets before they sicced a police dog on his dead body.
That was the work of “police savages” as former officer Norman likes to describe himself—and it is an inherent characteristic in most special crimes units, as we described in February 1, 2023 about the savage murder of Tyre Nichols by five members of the Memphis Police Department’s former special crimes unit called the “Scorpions.”
The “savages” of these “special” police units specifically target young black men to shoot to kill before arrest and to brutalize after arrest.
We can only hope that the U.S. Justice Department will bring “justice” to Roland Harris with the indictment of Officers Norman and Bertz.