Mercedes Harris may have saved multiple lives, including her own, when she shot and killed Christopher Garvin in New Haven, Connecticut on a hot August night last year, but in a new lawsuit filed against the city and thirteen members of the police force, the woman claims that if law enforcement had done their job in the first place she never would have needed to pull the trigger after Garvin shot her mother in a brutal act of domestic violence.
Sheila Harris had warned police that Garvin had stolen her firearm just a few hours before she was fatally shot, and after filing a police report several officers took her back to her home, where they stayed for about three hours before leaving to respond to a reported home invasion. Just a few minutes later, however, police raced back to Harris’s apartment after gunshots rang out. When they arrived, they found both Harris and Garvin with gunshot wounds. Garvin had returned to the residence once officers left and shot his partner before Mercedes Harris pulled her own pistol and fired several shots in defense of her mother, herself, and other family members.
“If they would have just stayed with her, she would still be here,” Mercedes said in an interview with the Independent.
She replays one exchange with police in particular from the night of her mother’s killing: “I said, ‘You guys are leaving? What if he comes back?’ They said, ‘Just call the police.’”
The police department is currently conducting an internal affairs investigation into officers’ actions that night. They have not charged Mercedes in connection with the shooting.
Since her mother’s murder, Mercedes has lived in grief and fear. She said she heard that Garvin’s family had threatened to hurt her in revenge. She wants to believe she would call the police if she needed to, but she doesn’t have full faith that a 9 – 1‑1 call would lead to adequate protection.
Since shooting Garvin, Mercedes hasn’t received her own (legally-owned) gun back from the police, which makes her nervous about potential consequences for shooting a man whom she said was still pointing a gun at her mother’s head.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” she said. “I’m nervous for my children.”
It’s atrocious that nearly six months after shooting her mother’s murderer Harris still hasn’t had her firearm returned to her, despite the fact that no charges have been filed against her in relation to Garvin’s attack or her attempt to protect her mother. At the very least, she deserves the ability to once again protect herself and her kids if need be, and it sounds like the city has erected needless barriers between her and her right to armed self-defense.
When it comes to her argument that police failed in their duty to protect Sheila Harris from harm, on other hand, Mercedes Harris is going to face an uphill fight in the courts, which have repeatedly ruled that law enforcement has no duty to protect any individual. The biggest decision to that effect was handed down by the Supreme Court in a 2005 case known as Castle Rock v. Gonzales, when the justices ruled 7-2 that an individual who has obtained a restraining order does not have a constitutionally protected property interest in having the police enforce the restraining order, even when they have probable cause to believe it has been violated.
Jessica Gonzales had taken out a restraining order prohibiting her estranged husband from seeing her or their children except during supervised visits. Despite that order, around 5 p.m. on the evening of June 22, 1999, her husband snatched their three children from the front yard of the Gonzales home. Jessica Gonzales immediately called police and showed the arriving officers a copy of the restraining order, but they told her there was nothing they could do, and to call them again if the children weren’t returned home by 10 p.m.
At approximately 10:10 p.m., respondent called the police and said her children were still missing, but she was now told to wait until midnight. She called at midnight and told the dispatcher her children were still missing. She went to her husband’s apartment and, finding nobody there, called the police at 12:10 a.m.; she was told to wait for an officer to arrive. When none came, she went to the police station at 12:50 a.m. and submitted an incident report. The officer who took the report “made no reasonable effort to enforce the TRO or locate the three children. Instead, he went to dinner.”
Roughly three hours later, Gonzales’ estranged husband showed up at the Castle Rock police station and began shooting at officers. Police returned fire, killing him, but inside the cab of his pickup truck, they found the bodies of his three daughters, whom he’d murdered just a short time before.
In its decision, the Court ruled that restraining orders don’t compel police to provide any particular action in response, other than perhaps arresting the subject of the order when and if it’s violated. According to the 7-2 decision, “Gonzales had no constitutionally-protected property interest in the enforcement of the restraining order, and therefore could not claim that the police had violated her right to due process.”
Sheila Harris hadn’t taken out a restraining order against her partner, and based on the department’s version of events at least the officers who returned with her to her home stayed on the scene for several hours until they were dispatched to the scene of another crime, so the case against the individual New Haven officers sued by her daughter would appear to be on even shakier legal ground than the Gonzales case. The only thing that gives me pause is that there are apparently conflicting versions of what happened in the minutes before Sheila Harris was murdered.
Five officers, including [Jaymie] Morales, convened with Sheila at her home, where they met family members including Mercedes. The police searched the house and didn’t find either Garvin or Sheila’s guns.
Officer Morales wrote that he spoke to someone, ostensibly one of Garvin and Harris’ kids, who said that Garvin had threatened earlier that the kids “will not have a father and mother soon.”
This is when, according to Taubes and Mercedes, the police should have stayed with Sheila.
The police reports offer slightly different accounts of the chronology leading up to the officers’ departure from the house.
Morales wrote that Sheila left her home to stay at a friend’s house, and that officers remained at the house for about 10 minutes after her departure until they were dispatched to a house five blocks away.
According to Mercedes, her mom never left the house.
Officer Joshua Hurlburt merely wrote that Sheila “informed” the officers of plans to spend the night at a friend’s place, prompting the five officers to leave the house. Two of the other responding officers wrote that they left the house without giving a particular reason or indicating that Sheila left.
According to Mercedes, Garvin had been waiting for the cops to leave. Moments after they departed, Garvin walked back inside the house and then walked out front. He started smashing the windows of Sheila’s car.
Shortly after leaving, according to the police reports, the officers who searched Harris’ home were dispatched to a house five blocks away, responding to reports of a man entering that house with a gun and a woman screaming for help.
Two of the officers wrote that they confirmed the address with the NHPD dispatcher in order to make sure that the house in question wasn’t Sheila Harris’ home. Initially, dispatch responded that the house five blocks away was the correct address.
The officers reconvened there and searched the house, finding nothing of concern. Then, Officer Dylan Carleton wrote, Dispatch sent an update that they had been sent to the wrong house, and that Sheila Harris’ address was indeed the subject of the call.
Meanwhile, Garvin was destroying Sheila’s car. Mercedes said she believes this was a calculated attempt to lure Sheila out of the house — and it worked.
Sheila rushed outside to see what had happened to her car, according to Mercedes.
Garvin pulled out his gun and shot Sheila. Immediately, Mercedes retrieved her own legally-owned gun from the safe inside her house and rushed outside. Police reports indicate that she saw Garvin standing over Sheila, pointing the gun at Sheila’s head. Mercedes shot at Garvin before he could pull the trigger again.
Based on the precedent set by Castle Rock v. Gonzales, I’m still not convinced that Mercedes Harris is going to be able to successfully argue that the police failed in their duty to protect Sheila Harris from her abuser, or whether or not the courts will conclude that they had a duty to protect her specifically in the first place. At the very least, however, I’d say the New Haven Police Department has no reason to keep Mercedes Harris’s firearm away from her, given the lack of charges and the apparently undisputed allegations that she shot Garvin to protect her mother. Law enforcement may not have a duty to protect us as individuals, but they shouldn’t be allowed to prevent us from protecting ourselves, and it sounds like that’s exactly what has happened to Mercedes Harris in the six months since her mother was murdered.