James Harrison’s story does not stir sympathy.
The Johnston man was accused of peeping through a young neighbor’s window in May. The next morning he allegedly killed his mother and a neighbor and shot a child before fleeing, threatening police and ultimately dying in a blaze of law enforcement gunfire.
Harrison’s May 24 shooting was captured on multiple police-worn body cameras. Despite the video evidence, six months later, a police-involved shooting investigation by Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office remains open.
“Since taking office, Attorney General Neronha has brought uniformity, accountability, and experience, to investigations of officer-related incidents,” AG spokesman Brian Hodge wrote a response via email to a request for comment. “In 2020, the Attorney General issued updated protocols concerning how the Office would review use of force incidents by law enforcement … Before this update, the protocol had not been updated since 2007.”
Neronha was elected AG in 2018.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown called for patience and clear communication with the public.
“Police shootings can be factually complicated and sometimes require the convening of a grand jury, and so we don’t believe any specific time frame should be established for requiring such an important investigation to wrap up,” Brown said. “At the same time, transparency is key. The public should be informed as to the reasons that any particular investigation of a police shooting is taking an inordinate amount of time, as unexplained delays can only promote distrust.”
The JohnstonSun Rise asked Hodge how many police-involved Ocean State shooting investigations were pending in the AG’s office.
“With regards to how many police-involved incidents this office is currently investigating, while there has been some public reporting on this topic, it is generally not our policy to confirm or deny the existence of investigations publicly,” Hodge replied.
The section includes 14 concluded investigations dating back to 2019. According to the AG’s website, 12 of the 14 investigations (or 85%) resulted in “no criminal charges filed” against the officers involved.
Two investigations did result in charges against police:
Hodge also provided links to four news stories about Rhode Island police charged with crimes by the AG’s Office: “Furthermore, since instituting this protocol, the office has brought several cases that have resulted in the charging of law enforcement officers when there is probable cause that a crime has been committed.”
Cranston Police promptly released body camera footage from the police-involved shooting of Harrison, 52, of 4 Ligian Court, Johnston. The incident was captured from multiple angles by multiple body-worn cameras. Witnesses reported hearing at least 50 gunshots from police (the camera footage confirms a barrage of gunfire).
How Long’s Too Long?
“In addition, we continue to believe that police body-worn camera footage of such incidents should be released to the public expeditiously, and no later than 30 days after a shooting,” Brown said earlier this week. “That is why the ACLU has opposed Attorney General regulations that allow such footage to be withheld for longer periods if an investigation is not ‘substantially complete.’ The public’s right to know is paramount in such cases.”
How long is too long for an investigation into police-involved shootings?
The investigation into the January 2022 Warwick Police Department shooting took the AG’s office nearly 17 months to conclude (the report was released in May 2023).
The Sun Rise asked Hodge if “the AG’s office (was) where police-involved shooting investigations go to die?”
“Contrary to how you’ve phrased your question, the Office does everything it can to investigate, bring charges where appropriate, and in instances where charges are not brought, share publicly, when possible, the results of its investigations into officer-involved incidents,” Hodge replied. “The Office, has for years, posted reports from these investigations on our website and updates accordingly. This is something that was not done under prior administrations.”
Hodge further elaborated on the fairly recent AG police-shooting protocol.
“Under the updated protocol, Rhode Island law enforcement agencies are required to immediately report these incidents to the Attorney General, who, along with the State Police and local law enforcement agency, leads a review of the incident and makes charging decisions where appropriate, and is applicable to all Rhode Island state and municipal law enforcement agencies,” Hodge explained.
Rhode Island’s top legal official has received an influx of fresh funding from the state, enabling his creation of a cold case unit and the filling of at least a dozen other new positions in the AG’s civil and criminal divisions.
“While the office received additional resources it was not specifically for this work (police-use-of-force investigations),” Hodge said. “This work requires experienced prosecutors to review evidence and work with state and local law enforcement to investigate.”
“Investigations begin promptly following these incidents, and oftentimes involve a number of other agencies and organizations, including various law enforcement organizations, medical examiners offices, and other forensic laboratories, to say nothing of the thorough gathering and subsequent review of all evidence,” Hodge explained. “It can sometimes take months to obtain the medical examiner and forensic services unit analysis report. This isn’t to point fingers at anyone but there are significant caseloads facing all of those agencies as well as us, which contributes to the length of time to review.”
“Each investigation is unique, but each requires the proper attention to ensure a just and fulsome decision is reached,” Hodge argued. “This takes time. The office does not adhere to a specific timeline in completing its investigations but focuses on accuracy and completeness over expediency.”
The Case Lingers
No one disputes police likely shot and killed the right man following the May 24 Johnston double murder. And no one has disputed the use of force displayed by police.
“The investigation regarding the incident is ongoing,” Johnston Police Chief Mark A. Vieira said in June. “I have no new information to disclose at this time regarding the open investigation.”
At press-time, Vieira had yet to respond to a new request for an update on the case.
In May, Vieira told the public that Johnston police had responded to 2 Ligian Court “in reference to a report of suspicious activity” around midnight hours before the shooting started.
Thomas May, 44, called police to report hearing “banging noises … on the exterior of his residence by his daughter’s bedroom window,” according to Vieira. Johnston Police arrived and looked in vain for Harrison.
The next morning, around 7:30 a.m., shots rang out on Ligian Court. A Johnston Police Officer returned to the scene, “in another attempt to make contact with Harrison to investigate and issue him the trespass notice,” and discovered “a 15-year-old juvenile female lying on the front lawn of the residence with apparent gunshot wounds and stopped to render aid.”
Eventually, after additional officers arrived on the scene, police found May, a Johnston Little League coach, dead in the garage, “from a fatal gunshot wound to his head,” according to police.
“The juvenile identified Harrison as the shooter,” Vieira told reporters. “Officers were unable to locate Harrison and a BOLO (Be On the Lookout) was issued to surrounding law enforcement agencies regarding Harrison and the vehicle he was operating.”
Police entered Harrison’s home at 4 Ligian Court and found a third victim, whom police identified as the suspect’s mother, Janet Harrison, 83, “also deceased from a fatal gunshot wound to the head.”
Harrison’s Buick Encore was eventually spotted by police and led to a crash and fatal shooting of the suspect on Plainfield Pike near the Johnston/Cranston border, underneath the Interstate 295 overpass.
Cranston Police Chief Col. Michael J. Winquist told reporters that both Cranston and Providence police officers “fired shots at the suspect.”
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