The Last 911 Call: A Mentally Ill Dallas Man and the Cops Who Saved Him, Until They Didn't
David Harrison, far left, stayed close with his brother, Jason, from when he was a boy (left) until the day he was shot dead by police. Now he wants answers.
The sanctuary of St. Paul United Methodist Church, a red-brick anachronism surrounded by the skyward steel and concrete of downtown Dallas, is small and tight — not nearly big enough to accommodate the swarm of people that poured into the city's oldest black church on a warm Monday night in August. Grieving family members and community activists milled in entryways and spilled from pews into aisles, their eyes fixed on the chancel, where the city's police chief and the county's district attorney and sheriff stood at a table, looking down and out onto the crowd about to boil over.
Nine days earlier, Darren Wilson, a white police officer, had shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri. Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who'd organized that night's town hall meeting, maintained that his office had planned the event months before, but the timing was auspicious for many of the people assembled there, who hoped to talk about their own sons and brothers.
Watkins grabbed the microphone and walked to the platform's edge. "We're not Missouri," he said.
David Harrison sat up front that night. Tall and broad-shouldered, with a pockmarked face, a trim goatee and glasses, 44-year-old Harrison had never been much of an activist. But ever since one day a couple of months prior — the "game-changer," as he called it — he hadn't been able to concentrate on his job at a construction company. He played the events of 11:23 to 11:26 a.m. June 14 in his mind, then rewound them and played them again, trying to make sense of what happened. But he couldn't. The man police described in their incident report wasn't the brother he'd known for 38 years. His brother was gentle, nonthreatening. How did he do what they said he had?
Harrison had never harbored especially strong feelings about the police, beyond the healthy skepticism of their intentions so many black men share. They serve a purpose, he figured. They're crime fighters. But recently those beliefs had been smashed, and he watched with a sentiment more visceral than skepticism as Watkins handed the microphone to David Brown, the chief of Dallas' police force.
"We're not perfect," Brown said of himself and his officers. "We're never going to be perfect. [But] I believe our critics can be our best teachers. You may not feel that people are listening to you. I'm listening to every word you say, and I'm taking it to heart. We want to find the best ways to protect you. So you keep criticizing, you stay in our ear. I'm not asking you to stay down or be quiet. I want to hear from you. We recognize that we are public servants and you are our bosses."
Harrison wasn't sure he believed that last part. But he kept listening as Brown sat down and Sheriff Lupe Valdez gave a quick speech, echoing her counterparts. Finally the floor was opened for questions. Harrison was the second person to take the microphone.
"Hi," he said, his voice raspy, small and under control, not betraying the anger he felt. "My name is David Harrison."
Until that point in the night the crowd's steady murmur had been a backing track to the politicians' promises, but now the church fell silent. They recognized that last name.
"My brother, Jason Harrison, was the mentally ill guy who was shot and killed in June."
David Harrison, above, is suing the city of Dallas over the death of his brother, Jason.
One day in the late 1990s, David Harrison was hanging out with a friend outside his mom's house, a gray brick single-story with orange wood paneling, on Glencairn Drive, a working-class street in southern Dallas.
Harrison's mother, Shirley, had moved there when he was 1. His brother Jason was born four years later. Despite their age difference the brothers were always close, even if they had different friends, different hangouts. Now in his mid-20s, David was out of the house, but enjoying a night back in the 'hood. Jason, 19 or 20 but still living at home, was nearby, standing motionless in the middle of the street and staring intently into the light from a corner streetlamp. A dad in the neighborhood noticed him and got David's attention. What's that boy doing?
It hadn't always been like this. Shirley and the boys' dad, David Sr., divorced when Jason was small. He remarried and lived in Dallas, but the family only had three members after that, David says. Shirley worked as a secretary at the administrative offices of Child Protective Services, and David says they made do on a single income. Neighbors say that at that time, Glencairn was a good community, where kids played football in the street and drivers waited for them to scatter to front lawns before passing through.
It was in those streets where young Jason Harrison met Robert Rooks, and the two became best friends. Jason had been a bit of a momma's boy growing up, says his cousin Roselyn Harrison. She was 14 years older than Jason and she sometimes babysat him; she was struck by how "clingy" he was. But at some point Rooks' family bought the house across the street, and they'd walk home from elementary school together. Jason was playful, quick to smile. Harrison and Rooks became inseparable, even calling themselves cousins.
Jason was a big Michael Jackson fan, and he took drum lessons. When he was 5, he started drumming for a gospel group that performed at nearby Telstar Baptist. "He was able to stay in the pocket and play, get through the songs and get them done," David says. David took guitar lessons and sang with the group, but Jason stuck with the music longer, drumming for the group through middle school. As he got older, he stopped playing soccer and focused on music. He bought as many hip-hop CDs as he could and listened relentlessly to learn the craft. He even started writing his own songs.
The brothers enjoyed sports, too, though they took to different games. Putting his big frame to good use, David stuck to football, playing at Carter High School right before it became a powerhouse. Jason was small by comparison, topping out at 6 feet. "Soccer and the drums," David says. "That was his thing."
As Jason grew up, the neighborhood changed. Houses and jobs were lost. "You started to hear about a thing called crack," Rooks says. The kids knew one or two people who smoked it, but the number eventually grew. As Jason advanced through high school, he lost friends — people he'd known since he was a little kid — to gun violence, Rooks says. But despite how depressed the neighborhood had become, everyone still knew each other, still looked out for each other. People felt protected, Rooks says.
If Jason was exhibiting signs of mental illness through grade school or middle school, no one realized it. That's not surprising. The symptoms of his disease, schizophrenia, usually manifest in late adolescence or early adulthood. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, the first signs are common to teenagers: dropping grades, difficulty sleeping, irritability. Jason's condition wasn't formally diagnosed until after he graduated from high school, so perhaps that's why to his family and friends, the illness seemed to attack suddenly.
David looked at his brother. He didn't know why he'd changed so quickly, and science doesn't offer many clues. Something to do with his genes misfiring, and possibly his environment. "Some people take adversity in life and try to step on it, prove it to be wrong," David theorizes now. "And some people let it beat them up and hold their progress down." Whatever the cause, the Harrisons had a new normal, and it was on display the night that Jason stood in the street, staring into the light.
"Oh," David's friend said, "that's just J."
After Jason was diagnosed with schizophrenia, the Harrisons settled into an unusual but manageable existence. Shirley drove him to regular appointments with a psychologist and a psychiatrist. He was prescribed Risperdal, an antipsychotic that subdued his symptoms. The drugs could make him agitated, depressed or ravenous, and over the years Jason's weight swung up and down wildly. But they kept his symptoms in check.
He couldn't work, like many people with schizophrenia. He helped his mom with chores around the house and, later, drove her to the store, but he mostly kept to himself. Sometimes he took walks. Rooks, Jason's best friend, went off to college, but he remembers hearing from people in the neighborhood that Jason was pacing the street, talking to himself.
He continued rapping, even recording what he wrote. He was prolific. "He'd spit some bars and let me check it out," says David, who treasured those rare interactions. "Then sometimes you couldn't talk to him. It was frustrating."
Soon after Jason's diagnosis, Rooks returned to Glencairn to visit, but it seemed all the history between them was gone. After Roselyn, Jason's cousin, moved back to Dallas, she occasionally saw him at the hospital because she works as a substance abuse counselor. He'd recognize her, calling her by her middle name. But when he spoke, she often found herself asking, "Jason, what are you talking about?"
"Jason was a genius in his mind," she says. "We didn't understand what he was talking about, but it was smart."
Most days, Jason walked the eight or nine minutes to a Chevron convenience store, a white box that held Skittles and cups of instant noodles. He'd make a right turn down Arborcrest Drive, then turn left onto a two-lane frontage road for I-35. There was no sidewalk so he just trudged up the hill on the road's grassy shoulder, cars buzzing past.
The workers behind the glass always recognized him. They'd say hey, and Jason would reply if he was in the right mood. He was good at math and was able to tell the cashiers the exact change he needed. Sometimes, while pacing the aisles, he shouted inappropriately, his shrieks bouncing around the store's close quarters. The workers let it pass; that was just "crazy Jason," as they called him.
Sometimes David drove through the neighborhood to see if his brother was walking around, possibly headed to the Chevron. He wanted to make sure no one was giving his little brother a hard time. "It's just a natural deal," he says. "There's nothing I can do for him mentally, but I would look out [for him]."
One afternoon in the fall of 2013, Shirley Harrison called 911. In the two decades since her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, she'd dialed the numbers more than 30 times, Jason's family says. On this day, he was pacing the kitchen, rambling, a sign to Shirley that he'd stopped taking his pills. She dialed and waited.
When off his medication, David says, Jason usually had something in his hands, fooling around with it, and he'd punctuate whatever conversation he was having with himself by shouting. It always seemed Jason didn't know where he was. "He would just be in his own world," David says.
While on the phone with the dispatcher, Shirley knew to explain the situation — that her schizophrenic son was off his medication, that he needed to be taken to Green Oaks Hospital, that the dispatcher should send officers trained to deal with the mentally ill. It was model behavior for parents with schizophrenic children, says Dallas police officer Herb Cotner, who trains his fellow officers on how to deal with people who have mental illnesses. When officers know they're responding to a non-criminal situation, they can act accordingly, he says. Shirley called so regularly, David says, "it got to the point where you had people that worked in the area so they knew the house, they knew Jason, they [would] come in and talk to him, say hey man, you're off your meds."
How the police respond to incidents involving a person with a mental illness changed dramatically during Jason's lifetime — at least when officers are properly trained. Less than 10 years ago, cadets, and only cadets, received "crisis intervention training," or CIT, which taught them to deescalate such situations. In 2005, however, the Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring the same type of training for veterans.
It was needed. The year before, Dallas police officers had answered a call about a mentally ill woman. Diann Kemp, who had schizophrenia, was in her hotel room when she began to act irrationally. The officers who responded would later say they didn't know she had a mental illness and would have reacted differently if they had. Instead, when the hotel manager tried to open the door, Kemp slashed the manager's wrist with a box cutter. The officers eventually broke in. Kemp managed to slice one officer's leg before she was shot and killed. The city reportedly paid her family $250,000.
Advocates applauded Texas' new law, but they didn't think the bill went far enough. In stepped Dallas police Chief David Kunkel, who required that the department's officers receive 24 hours of training in dealing with mentally ill people, eight more than required by state law. The department also offered a 40-hour course known as the Memphis Model, generally recognized as the best program to teach officers how to distinguish criminal behavior from mentally ill behavior. Officers spend 20 hours in the classroom and 20 hours role playing scenarios, such as if a parent calls 911 and asks for help for her child.
"Most of our training as police officers is the exact opposite of what needs to be done with a mentally ill person," Kunkle, whose father suffered from mental illness, told The Dallas Morning News in 2008. "We're trained to be assertive and quickly take control. For someone who is paranoid or hearing voices, that will only escalate the situation."
De-escalation is essentially achieved by giving the subject their space. Officers are taught to keep their distance. About 30 feet is adequate, says Sherry Cusomano, the president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Green Oaks community relations director. Officers should let a person suffering an episode — who might be throwing dishes, for instance — vent, get all of their emotion out and then ask them how they're feeling, she says. Also, officers shouldn't yell. "Shouting orders doesn't help," Cusomano says. "It usually only makes them agitated." Instead, officers should model the behavior they want the person to exhibit. "Remain calm, control your voice, and ignore verbal abuse from the subject," the police policy reads. "Above all, stay extremely alert and on guard. Do not get excited."
Of course, all of this hinges on whether officers know what they're heading into, Cotner says. The police department, NAMI and other local agencies partner to raise awareness about mental illness, specifically for parents. Even though officers are trained to look for signs of mental illness, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll recognize them, Cotner says. They might not have enough time to assess it.
Plus, not every officer has taken the 40-hour course. In his eight years on the job, Cotner says he's trained more than 2,000 people, but because of promotions not every one of the department's nearly 3,500 officers has been trained. Cotner says he tries to get them in the course, offered monthly, during their first 18 months on the force. But even if he does, the officers might not remember what they learned. According to a 2014 study of the Memphis Model, officers adhere to its principles very well in the short-term, but the skills decay over time. According to department policy, officers must repeat the basic training on recognizing mental illness at least every three years.
The shortcomings may help explain why, even in Dallas, officers don't always respond appropriately. Late last year, officers found Bobby Bennett, who has schizophrenia, sitting in a swivel chair in the street of a Rylie cul-de-sac. He had a knife in his hand. When officers arrived, according to initial police reports, Bennett rushed them and had his "knife raised in an aggressive manner." An officer shot him in the stomach. (He eventually recovered). A neighbor's surveillance camera picked up the shooting; it showed that Bennett made no such movement. The officer, Cardan Spencer, was fired and indicted on aggravated assault charges, a rare indictment of a police officer. His criminal case is pending.
For the Harrisons, though, things usually went by the book. The officers arrived, recognized Jason had a mental illness and escorted him to Green Oaks without incident. The hospital's doctors would evaluate him and get him back on his medication. Jason was usually released to his mom's care after a few hours. Eventually, David says, his mom wanted to get Jason long-term care, but the only place for that near Dallas was Terrell State Hospital. The Green Oaks staff only refers patients there if they believe more than three weeks of treatment is needed, a long time for a psychotic episode. "It was a revolving door for 19 years," David says. "It never stopped."
That day last fall, the officers who responded to Shirley's call found Jason still pacing in the kitchen, screaming obscenities. Shirley told them her son was off his medication and that he hadn't slept in two days. As the officers watched him, they tried to determine if he was a danger to anyone or to himself.
Like most people with schizophrenia, Jason wasn't violent. If Jason were violent, David says, "you would have some kind of consistent record where, hey, this guy pulled a knife, pulled a gun, swung at [someone]. You don't have that. If you're a mental person, and it's been 19 years, you're going to have some of that in your record." Jason didn't have any felony convictions; in fact, he was more of a target. In 2005, he filed a complaint with the police that someone stole his cell phone. The next year, he complained someone he didn't know punched him in the face.
This day, though, was unusual. The officers thought Jason's offensive language was directed at them. As they would note in their report, Jason "noticed officers watching him," and turned his invective toward them. He then spit in an officer's face. The officers escorted him to their squad car, and Jason spit in the other's face.
It was the second-to-last time the Dallas Police Department responded to the house on Glencairn. Jason was charged with assault. He was originally deemed unfit to stand trial, but once he got back on his medication the court reversed its earlier decision. Jason was ordered to spend 120 days at a mental health facility in the Rio Grande Valley.
After Jason returned home, the Harrison household resumed normalcy. Jason, his family noticed, seemed to be doing better.
Jason Harrison bled to death in his driveway, while his mother looked on.
June 14 was hot, in the 90s, and Jason wore a white T-shirt with blue athletic shorts. He paced inside the house, a Phillips screwdriver in his hand. Shirley knew the routine. Her baby would be taken to the hospital, put back on medication and released back to her care. A little before 11 that morning, she grabbed her phone and dialed the three numbers.
She told the dispatcher her son had schizophrenia and was being argumentative, and she requested trained personnel who could provide the care he needed. About 15 minutes later, officers John Rogers and Andrew Hutchins, who had both been on the force for about six years, arrived in separate squad cars. At 11:23, they walked up the driveway to the front door.
They noted the tight space. There were three cars in the driveway: a blue sedan Jason drove Shirley to the store in, an orange Chevy hatchback next to it and an old Mercedes with a busted front tire and a taped-up back windshield. To reach the door, they had to step up onto a concrete slab. The closed garage door was to their right, with Rogers closest to it.
He knocked, and Shirley answered.
The two officers' recountings of what happened next don't match completely. In a written response to a lawsuit filed against them by Jason's father, Rogers says Shirley told them Jason was being unruly, and then she walked passed them. But Hutchins' retelling of the seconds after Shirley opened the door makes her seem much more upset.
According to Hutchins, as soon as she opened the door, she positioned herself behind Hutchins, a tight squeeze between him and the blue sedan. Then she said, "He's off his chain." Jason then came to the doorway, where he continued to fiddle with the screwdriver. Hutchins says he "twisted it between the fingers of his left hand."
The two officers ordered Jason to drop the tool. According to a police report, obtained by David through an open-records request, Jason then "walked toward the officers in an aggressive manner."
Hutchins claims Jason jabbed the screwdriver at Rogers, then at him. Rogers says Jason jabbed at Hutchins first, then him. Either way, the officers both say that Jason didn't drop the screwdriver. They tried to move away, but the cars prevented them from creating distance between Jason and themselves. Believing the tool could be used as a "deadly puncture weapon," the officers feared for their lives, both claim.
They drew their handguns. Rogers fired twice, Hutchins three times. One bullet ripped through Jason's forearm and hit him again in the chest. Jason stumbled and fell. Two bullets pierced his back, according to the autopsy, a detail that would perplex the family when they learned of it. One lodged itself in the wood paneling to the right of the doorway.
Jason landed on hard concrete, next to his mom's car and the garage door. Three minutes after the officers parked their cars, at 11:26 a.m., he began to bleed out, staining the driveway. With Jason on the ground, Rogers removed the screwdriver from his hand while Shirley stood, watching her son die.
David was at home in Waxahachie when his mom called. He got in his truck and drove to her house, 30 minutes that felt like hours. He was stopped short of Glencairn by yellow police tape that cordoned off the entire block. He got out of his truck. The closest he could get was the corner, the same one where Jason had stared into the streetlight that one night years ago.
His childhood friend was with him, and they stood on the corner for hours in the hot sun as the officers worked. David didn't know where his mother was; later, he would find out that she was sitting in a squad car down the street, waiting to be taken to the station. (Through David, Shirley declined to be interviewed by the Observer.) He couldn't see his brother's body. He asked an officer what happened but didn't get any information, he says.
A white van took Jason's body away, and eventually David was allowed on the property. He found his brother's blood in front of the garage door. With help from his friend and the neighbors, Harrison used a hose and bleach to clean up the driveway.
The people in St. Paul United Methodist stood silently as Harrison told Chief Brown about his brother. Most knew the basic story: mentally ill man, cops called out so many times before, had a screwdriver. (The officers say it was about 6 inches long, but David says the metal part was thin, used for the small screws on computers.) Most also knew about an incident less than a month later, when a man sniped at firefighters with an AK-47. SWAT was called in, and the man was taken alive, but not before claiming the land he was on in North Dallas was now a new country named after him, Doug-e-stan. Is that not a mental illness, thought many in the crowd? The sniper, the people at the church knew, was white.
Right after his brother was "executed," Harrison says, he joined Mothers Against Police Brutality. It was as though his eyes had been opened. He learned about Dallas' history of police shootings: How 43 of the 58 men killed between 2002 and mid-2013 were minorities, according to a U.S. Department of Justice complaint. He learned about the policy allowing officers to take three days before making a statement — "an open-book test," he calls it. How it was implemented recently, and how critics say it's designed to let officers get their stories straight. He learned about Bobby Bennett, the man in the swivel chair, a case Harrison believes is eerily similar to his brother's.
At the microphone, Harrison paused a moment, weighing his words. He knew one of the officers on June 14 wore a body camera. That footage, he thought, could clear all of this up. His mother, standing so close by, had told him Jason hadn't walked aggressively. His brother had never been aggressive in his 38 years.
"It's been two and a half months," David said. "We haven't seen the camera [footage]. There's only speculation. We were able to get the autopsy, and it of course showed he was hit six times and hit twice in the back. So now, these cameras, you guys have them, but are they going to be for us to be able to understand what happened to our loved one?"
Brown took the microphone and answered immediately.
"Yes," he said.
But, he continued, releasing information to the public too early would interfere with the investigation, and possibly hinder justice. "We've released specific information about what the officers did, what your loved one did," Brown told Harrison, "and we've recounted that the video does corroborate the information that the officers said happened and the information that other witnesses said happened."
The moderator moved on to the next person, and Harrison sat down unsatisfied. In the months after the meeting, his life continued on this activist path. He and his cousin Roselyn attended another town hall meeting, and Roselyn choked out an unanswered question. David showed up at the late October march downtown alongside members of the group that filed the Department of Justice complaint, alleging police brutality that targeted minorities. And Harrison and his mother sued the two officers, Rogers and Hutchins.
The officers didn't need to kill Jason, they allege. In the suit, Shirley says that instead of cowering behind Hutchins, she simply walked past them after answering the door and telling them her son was acting unruly. The officers "willfully and maliciously shot Jason Harrison, despite having no legitimate reason for doing so," they claim. (The officers' lawyers disputed the family's claims.)
As the months passed, Harrison couldn't stop thinking about Jason. He thought about finishing the songs his brother started, and about how he no longer had a little brother to look out for. His mom wasn't doing very well. She hadn't spent a night in her home since that day — crashing with Harrison, cousins or a neighbor a few houses down — and it would be that way for long while. Everything they did going forward, Harrison realized, was in direct response to that hot summer day.
But along with memories of his brother, a dark thought began to manifest itself. "I look at gangs of Dallas," he says. "You got Bloods, Crips, Mexican Mafia. But the biggest one is DPD." He wants his brother's killers held accountable, but he's not hopeful.
"I just don't have no good thoughts about them cats, man," he says. The shooting, the months of despair, the cops seeming to care more about protecting their own than protecting his family. "It's basically like somebody pissed in your Cheerios," he says. "'Here's a spoon, dude.'"