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What Happened to Central Nyack Teenager Sean Harris? (and Other Local Stories)

Sean Harris, 19, died under suspicious circumstances after a long standoff with police that started with an argument with his mom. (Photo from Hanneman Funeral Home)

This week in the Villages we take a deep dive into the disturbing and tragic story of Sean Harris and his inexplicable death after a standoff with police. Plus, other local news, a weather prediction, quotes and videos of the week, a Covid update, upcoming meetings and much more. Thanks for being here!

Sean Harris died during a standoff with police; Why?

On May 30, the Tuesday after the Memorial Day holiday, Sean Harris, a 19-year-old Central Nyack resident and Rockland Community College engineering student, ended up dead after a lengthy and intense standoff with Clarkstown police.

Weeks later, we still don’t know what really happened in the hours leading up to Harris’ death, the official cause of which has yet to be determined (or at least publicly released) by the Rockland County medical examiner’s office.

What we do know is that significant parts of the official story being told by police do not match with the version told by Harris’ mother.

We also know that Harris’ death is a tragedy that never should have happened.

Let’s take a closer look at the circumstances around this tragedy and consider some of the confounding questions that remain. Hopefully we can edge somewhere closer to the truth.

A tragedy unearthed after an AG inquiry

Initially, Harris’ death didn’t get much attention. In fact, it barely made the news, which I guess, isn’t entirely surprising — the police, especially outside of major cities, rarely issue any public information. And media coverage, unfortunately, is lacking. (Having said that, huge shout out to lohud for breaking and then sticking with this story!)

A week later, on June 6, lohud’s Steve Lieberman reported that the Attorney General’s office was reviewing the death as part of “a preliminary assessment of the matter.” Under Section 70-b of the Executive Law, local law enforcement agencies like Clarkstown PD must contact the AG’s office when a death occurs under their watch (regardless of the circumstances). The AG’s office is then required to review any death that police are involved with.

While news of the AG’s investigation wasn’t out of the ordinary — it was required by law — the circumstances clearly called for more scrutiny.

At the time, a week after Harris death, Harris’ mom, Judy Adams, wasn’t talking to the media. But Lieberman pointed out that the NAACP and police reform advocates were suspicious, given Rockland County law enforcement’s historical problems when dealing with mental health issues, specifically with local residents of color.

The police statement, which is the only version we had heard about Harris’ death up until that point, was (and remains) short on details. You can read it in its entirety below. Read how it differs from the mother’s account below that.

Initially, police say they were called to scene because Harris had threatened to kill his mother and was destroying things in his own house with a bat. Let’s address the impetus for police intervention right now because this is where Harris’ mother’s version veers dramatically from what police say in their statement.

(Fortunately, we have her side because lohud’s other Rockland reporter, Nancy Cutler, was eventually able to speak with Harris’ mother, Judy Adams, who adopted Harris as an infant and lived with him up until his death.)

A call for counseling leads to militant police response

We know from both versions that Adams, Harris’ mother, reached out to a team of social workers from Access: Support for Living, a group that provides help for families dealing with members that might have disabilities or behavior challenges. Adams had called in support from Access to deal with some of Harris’ mental health challenges.

(It’s important to note that Harris’s family downplayed the severity of his mental and behavioral challenges because they might be used to justify Harris’ treatment by police, but those issues clearly played a role in why Adams reached out to Access in the first place — it’s a factor that shouldn’t be ignored or used as a justification for a violent response.)

After the Access social workers checked on Harris in the basement — Adams says they spent a minute with him in the basement and did not get a response — Harris came upstairs carrying a metal baseball bat.

In the statement, police say that Harris “came into the kitchen area, where both she and the mother were talking, started destroying items with a baseball bat, and
threatened to kill his mother.”

However, Adams says Harris did not threaten to killer her and did not destroy anything with the bat.

In any case, the social workers perceived a threat and police were called onto the scene. Soon after they arrived, Adams was asked to go outside, where she soon saw her block swarming with police officers, including “tactical units and police dogs and officers carrying shields,” according to Cutler’s reporting.

What happened after police arrived and Adams went outside is unclear and most of the information we have at this point comes directly from the police statement.

While Adams went outside, she says Harris remained inside. But that isn’t clear from the police statement.

A failed attempt at “less lethal” intervention

Inside or out, police say they asked Harris “several times” to drop the bat he was holding. When he “refused” to do so, police officers attempted to disarm him. At least part of this attempt included shooting Harris in the abdomen with a “less lethal impact munition” — a catch-all term for blunt objects like rubber bullets or bean bags fired from guns — and are “intended to gain compliance of subjects through pain, disorientation, anxiety, or fear.” These munitions are not meant to be lethal, but sometimes are (hence the “less lethal” term).

It’s unclear exactly what type of less lethal munition was used on Harris or what effect it had on him. Police only say that Harris “was struck by a less lethal impact munition on the lower left abdomen and retreated into his home.”

After this exchange, police say they called on the Clarkstown Police Department Negotiator Team, who talked with Harris periodically over the course of an hour. (At some point early on, Harris’ aunt says she spoke with Harris briefly using a police cruiser’s PA system. That was the only contact Harris had with anyone besides Clarkstown police.)

Police say during discussions with negotiating team, Harris “made additional threats to officers, stating that he was in possession of a Glock 17 handgun.”

Family members said they had never heard Harris talk about a Glock 17, specifically, or guns, generally. From both police and family accounts, it is clear that even if he told negotiators he had a gun, Harris was not, in reality, in possession of gun.

At some point, Harris stopped communicating with negotiators. Police say that “after numerous attempts to re-establish communication, it was decided for Clarkstown Police CIRT (Critical Incident Response Team) to enter the home.” (CIRT is Clarkstown’s version of what people think of as a SWAT team.)

At around 9:15 pm, after gaining entry into the house, partly by breaking down one of the home’s side doors, police say that CIRT officers found Harris “in a seated position in the bathroom of the residence. Next to him officers observed approximately two dozen opened pill bottles containing hundreds of pills.”

More questions, than answers

The implication from the police statement is that, at some point after negotiations broke down, Harris took his own life by swallowing hundreds of unknown pharmaceuticals he found in his mom’s medicine cabinet. (It’s unclear how long it was between the communication breakdown and police finding Adams slumped in the bathroom.)

Adams says she was told later at the hospital that Harris had overdosed, but she is skeptical about that assessment. (And, as we’ve mentioned, we don’t have an official ruling from the medical examiner’s office.)

When she returned home that night, Adams said she did not find any pill bottles on the ground and that the medicine cabinet and bathroom weren’t “messy.” Adams declined to say what type of prescriptions she kept in the house, but said it wasn’t any type of pain medication.

Whatever happened to Sean Harris, his family says his death represents an overuse of force in a situation that called for a more delicate response.

“We’re not in Iraq,” Harris’ brother, Kevin Adams, told lohud. “We’re in Rockland County.”

Of course, we’ve seen this type of response from Rockland police before and it is something police reform advocates have been pushing back against for years.

We have reached out to the Clarkstown police department and the state Attorney General’s office for more information on this case. Specifically, we asked Clarkstown police for a copy of the medical examiner’s report and Sean Harris’ cause of death. We’ll let you know when we hear back from them.

Read Lohud reporter Nancy Cutler’s in-depth piece here.

Stay tuned and be in touch …

In other relevant news:

Congratulations Class of 2023!

Family of Jared Lloyd and

Quotes of the week:

“We’re not in Iraq. We’re in Rockland County.”

Sean Harris’s brother, Kevin Adams, discussing the heavy police response to his brother’s behavior, which ended in Harris’ death under mysterious circumstances.

The difference between the performative outrage of [Rockland elected officials] [Ed] Day, [Teresa] Kenny and [Mike] Lawler — in recent press conferences and on conservative media outlets and their indifference and inaction when it comes to urgent crises like educational injustice in East Ramapo and, unsafe rentals in Spring Valley — is a case study in selective outrage. It’s also a master class in scapegoating for political gain.

From an enlightening opinion piece published on lohud and written by local immigration advocates Rosario “Charo” Ureña, Maria Marasigan and Elizabeth Roberts

Videos of the week:

Watch and listen to Sean Harris’ mother’s version of the story, which differs from the police’s version:

ICYM NNV’s weekly features: Bill Batson’s latest â€śNyack Sketch Log”; Mike Hays’ most recent â€śNyack People & Places”; and our coverage in our last edition of “The Villages”; Our latest Nyack Schools Report. If you haven’t read it yet, please check our vision for the future of Nyack News & Views and how you can help build our coverage and capacity.

Weather prediction (through June 26)

Looks like off and on rain throughout the weekend and into early next week [Click here for the National Weather Service‘s latest 7-day forecast for the Nyack area. Click here for the latest Air Quality Index report for Nyack.]

Covid Update! (threat level: still “low”)

According to CDC data of recent hospitalizations and cases, Rockland’s community threat level of Covid-19 is now considered “Low” after spending 6 weeks over the holidays in the “high” range and then dropping to medium throughout January. With a low designation, the CDC recommends getting tested if you have symptoms or have contact with someone who tests positive. Otherwise, live your life. 

Village updates

Nyack

  • Here’s the list of all upcoming meetings posted for the Village of Nyack.
  • If you could use help paying your water bills, click here.
  • Drop off humanitarian aid for victims of the war in Ukraine (including first aid, painkillers, blankets, baby food, diapers, non-perishable food, antibiotics and more, at Village Hall, 9 N. Broadway (or at the Orangetown town hall, 26 W. Orangeburg Rd.).

Upper Nyack

South Nyack

  • Due to reader request, we have re-added South Nyack, which dissolved as an official village earlier this year. Please send us info about what’s going on in South Nyack at info@nyacknewsandviews.com.

Orangetown

Clarkstown

  • The Technical Advisory Committee, which “evaluates the technical adequacy of land development applications and decides their readiness for Planning Board review,” meets most Wednesdays, including this Wednesday, from 10 am to noon, in the town hall’s Historic Map Room.
  • For a calendar list of all Clarkstown meetings and events, click here.

Other Local Updates

South Nyack advocates have filed a petition with the town of Orangetown seeking to show support for a new Elizabeth Place Playground — the grassy play area and dog park just south of 87 and right off the Esposito trail. After South Nyack dissolved in March, the town found the playground equipment at Elizabeth Place was unsafe and not compliant with ADA regulations and removed it. A new ADA compliant park has been proposed and advocates want to see the proposal approved and implemented. Click here to read and/or sign the petition.

Nyack Schools

Check out our latest Nyack Schools Report, a new regular feature we will post bi-monthly.

Find out what else is going on in Nyack-area schools at Home Page – Nyack Public Schools (nyackschools.org)

Rockland-wide

A rare polio case was recently discovered in Rockland County last summer. Here’s some info on how to protect yourself:

  • New Yorkers can pre-register for a free polio vaccination appointment here or call 845-238-1956 to schedule. Walk-ins will also be accepted.
  • Vaccines are also available through local healthcare providers, including Federally Qualified Health Centers.
  • For more information on polio including symptoms and spread, visit NYSDOH’s page here.
  • New Yorkers can learn more about the polio vaccine available in the U.S. at CDC’s page here.
  • The Reviving Rockland Restaurants Grant Program will reimburse businesses between $5,000 and $25,000 for past expenses or fund future expenses for eligible outdoor dining COVID-19 mitigation equipment. Eligible entities include restaurants, food stands, food trucks, bars, saloons, lounges, taverns, bakeries, delis, cafes, breweries, wineries, and other similar places of business. For more information and to download an application visit rocklandgov.com.
  • Fill out this survey to help the county provide better digital services.

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