How does a law-abiding mom driving home with two kids end up being Tasered, handcuffed and arrested — while her children are left alone for 40 minutes in the car, waiting for someone to come get them?
That’s a question that Audra Harmon hopes will be answered by a lawsuit she has filed against the Onondaga County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Department. In the process, she and her attorney told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Friday in New York, they hope to spur a debate over whether police should be carrying Tasers at all.
The suit, seeking unspecified monetary damages on an array of charges including false arrest and police brutality, has been filed, said attorney Terrance Hoffman, “to bring awareness not only that anybody can be a potential victim, but also awareness to the police officers who have the Tasers to be a little more judicious and think it out a little more before they use this kind of device. Then the overall picture is whether or not Tasers should be used in law enforcement.”
Quick on the draw?
Nowadays the Web seems awash with videos of police using Tasers on people for reasons that are not always immediately clear. The most famous is the 2007 video of a student screaming, “Don’t Tase me, bro!” as police repeatedly shock him at a political event.
To the list, add the video of Harmon being yanked from her car by a deputy and then shocked to her knees on a rural road for reasons Harmon still doesn’t understand.
A 38-year-old mother of three who has been driving school buses for 11 years, Harmon has said that she didn’t even know exactly what a Taser was until one was used on her after a routine traffic stop last Jan. 31 in the upstate New York county outside of Syracuse.
Harmon had been driving home with her 15-year-old son, whom she had just picked up from wrestling practice, and 5-year-old daughter. She said she was resting her right hand on her cheek as she pulled behind a sheriff’s deputy to make a right turn onto the road where she lived. After she made the turn, the deputy pulled off the road to let her pass, then pulled out behind her with his lights flashing and siren blaring.
The deputy, Sean Andrews, who has been taken off patrol duty while his department conducts an internal investigation, told her he was ticketing her for talking on her cell phone.
“I was driving with my hand on my cheek, and I think that’s what he saw,” Harmon told Vieira. “After I had given him the chance to look in my purse, check for a cell phone, then he manufactured the ticket with speeding. Again, I told him that he was wrong; I wasn’t speeding, either. Then we went back and forth.”
The speeding charge Andrews cited was doing 50 in a 45 mph zone. The officer said he didn’t use radar, but had paced her car at that speed for several seconds.
The standard advice to motorists during traffic stops is not to get out of the car unless instructed to by police. But Harmon wasn’t thinking of that. She wanted to see the evidence that she was speeding, so she left her white van and began walking back to Andrews’ cruiser.
“I wanted to see the tape. I knew that he was lying. I knew that I wasn’t speeding. I knew that I wasn’t on the cell phone. I wanted him to show me the tape,” she told Vieira.
The dash-cam video shows the officer turning and advancing on Harmon. She says he told her to get back in the van, and she hesitated while she demanded to see the evidence that she was speeding. Her son, alarmed at what he was seeing, yelled, “Mom, get back in!”
At some point, Andrews told her she was under arrest, but Harmon said she doesn’t remember if it was then or later.
“He wanted to arrest me. So after I got in, he wanted me back out again instead of just leaving me get back in my car,” Harmon said.
“It should have been over right there. I wouldn’t have reacted like I did if I had been on my cell phone or I was speeding.”
‘I posed no threat’
Harmon sat in the car hanging onto the steering wheel as the deputy grabbed her arm and dragged her out of the vehicle. As she was standing on the road talking to him, he pulled his Taser. She tried to get back in the van and he fired.
At no time in the dash-cam footage does Harmon appear to be acting belligerent. “I never swore. My hands were not flailing away. I posed no threat to him,” Harmon said.
“My daughter was crying. I heard her saying, ‘Mommy,’ ” Harmon said. “Afterward, my son said that she was really crying hysterically, wanting to know what happened to Mommy. And then of course she wanted her daddy, because she’s Daddy’s girl. She knew that I wasn’t going to be able to come to her, so she wanted Dad.”
After the arrest, more officers arrived — Harmon isn’t sure how many, but thinks there were at least six — along with an ambulance. The EMT technicians removed the Taser barb from her chest and asked if she wanted to be taken to the hospital. Harmon said she did.
A deputy removed her handcuffs in the ambulance and Andrews came to the hospital to give her an envelope with four tickets in it: for speeding, talking on her cell phone, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
All charges dismissed
After watching the dash-cam video, local prosecutors dismissed all charges. The Onondaga Sheriff is conducting an internal investigation into the incident and has declined to comment on Harmon’s lawsuit.
Although there were multiple deputies on the scene, Harmon says that her children were left in the car, even though they were within easy walking distance of their home. Harmon’s husband works nights and had to be awoken by deputies banging on his door to get him to come and get his children.
In April, Harmon filed her civil suit alleging numerous violations of state and federal law, including violating Harmon’s Fourth and 14th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure and unauthorized and excessive use of force. The suit also alleges intentionally inflicting emotional distress, false arrest, assault and battery and malicious prosecution.
But Hoffman, Harmon’s attorney, said that bigger issues are involved.
“The issue here really is much broader than Audra’s case,” he told Vieira. “The reason why we’re here is because Tasering has become a problem not only locally. I found out a man in Onondaga County was killed by a Taser within the last year.”
Neither Hoffman nor Harmon hold a grudge against police in general, and both have said that most officers do their jobs well under great pressure. As for Andrews, Harmon said: “I knew that either he was having a bad day or whatever. He knew that I wasn’t doing those things.”