Who is responsible for the death of Sean Harris?
The 19-year-old Central Nyack resident and Rockland Community College engineering student ended up dead after a lengthy and intense standoff with Clarkstown police back in May, and we’ve been asking the same question ever since.
Police said Harris, who is Black, overdosed in the bathroom of his family home. But nothing released to the public nearly eight months later confirms that account.
On top of the matter of what or whom caused Harris’ last breath are questions over whether social workers who were visiting the Harris home should have called police in the first place, as well as the proportionality of the cops’ response.
The New York Attorney General’s Office of Special Investigation — which undertakes preliminary investigations into any death an officer may have caused — has not yet determined whether a full investigation into Harris’ death is warranted.
When causation “is not initially clear, OSI calls its investigations ‘preliminary assessments,’ though they often take months to complete,” the AG’s website explains.
If it’s determined that an officer may have caused the death, that opens a full probe. The AG’s office can then either pursue an indictment or explain why it didn’t in a public report.
The AG’s office declined to comment about the timeline or any other aspects of the case. But preliminary assessments have only been completed in two of the 16 police-related deaths that took place in May 2023.
In fact, there are 12 cases still under preliminary investigation from 2022, according to data from the AG’s office.
While the process drags on, so do concerns about the two social workers who called 911 when Harris began wielding a bat while arguing with his mother. (To what extent Harris posed an imminent threat is a matter of disagreement).
Voices of Rockland, a small grassroots group that formed after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, alleges that social workers from the Rockland County Department of Mental Health and Access Supports for Living bear responsibility for Harris’ death because they “called the cops on Sean without telling him or his mother,” and “escalated the situation to the point that it lead to Sean Harris’ death,” according to a statement provided to Nyack News and Views.
“We can never return Sean to his family, but we can insist that those involved in his killing face consequences and be stopped from destroying more lives in our community,” the statement said.
The county’s mental health department directed us to Access Supports for Living when we reached out for comment. Access Supports for Living did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Voices of Rockland is now circulating a letter demanding accountability from the director of the mental health department as well as the president and CEO of Access Supports for Living/The CARE team, which had been touted as a way to “de-escalate situations, stabilize the youth, and navigate next steps,” according a draft of the VOR letter.
Meanwhile, even the basics of what happened that day in May remain a mystery.
Harris’ autopsy and the police report from the fatal incident are being kept under seal by the Medical Examiner’s Office and Clarkstown Police, whose officers do not wear body cameras.
Clarkstown police, for their part, have cited an active probe “being conducted by an external agency” in refusing to provide a copy of the incident report to Nyack News and Views — though nothing about the AG’s investigation prevents the police department from sharing it.
We have also been unable to reach Harris’ mother, Judy Adams, through a family spokesperson, but the Harris family appears to be moving forward on their own.
In mid-December, news reports surfaced that Harris’ family had filed a Notice of Claim marking their intention to sue Clarkstown Police and the County of Rockland for civil rights violations, as well as “false imprisonment, assault, battery, wrongful death, negligence, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, deliberate indifference to medical care and denial of medical care,” according to Lohud.