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1 Year Later, Still No Closure on Sean Harris’ Death

Graduation season asks us to look to the future. But we’re not ready to move on.

Sean Harris in cap and gown.
Sean Harris, in cap and gown, before he died in May 2023.

For many, the commencements of spring bring feelings of hope and optimism –  a sense of possibility gently pervading the season like a soft June breeze.

But at Nyack News and Views, when we hear Pomp and Circumstance, we think about a teenager named Sean Harris who never got a chance to blossom. And we see the graduation photo of him in a blue and yellow cap and gown that was burned into our minds last year, after his life came to a screeching halt.

Harris was 19 when he died after a prolonged standoff at his home with Clarkstown Police in May 2023. He lived in Central Nyack with his mother and was an engineering student at Rockland Community College. He was Black. 

Two Rockland County social workers were visiting Harris at his family home on May 30, 2023, when he began wielding a bat (to what extent is a matter of contention). 

The social workers called police to the scene, according to accounts by Harris’ mother and a statement from police. 

Activists, including Ashley Dawson (center), continued to ask for answers about what to happened to Sean Harris months later. (Photo by Andrea Swenson)

The actual incident report has been kept under wraps by the Clarkstown Police Department, which cited an active probe “being conducted by an external agency” in refusing to provide a copy. 

Meanwhile, the preliminary investigation by the New York Attorney General’s Office which the statement refers to has no bearing on the police department’s ability to make the report public. 

Police contend that Harris overdosed in the bathroom of his family home. But during the hours-long incident, they also struck Harris in the stomach with a “less lethal impact munition” — a catch-all term for blunt objects like rubber bullets or bean bags fired from guns. The munitions are not meant to be lethal, but they sometimes are (hence the “less lethal” part). 

Harris’ autopsy report, which might shed light on what or who actually caused his last breath, has also been kept from public view. 

Protester holds sign at rally over Sean Harris' death.
A protest over the death of Sean Harris in July 2023.

Over the past year, the local community has rallied and sent Freedom of Information Requests demanding more details. Harris’ mother has given interviews, and the AG’s office launched a preliminary probe that is still ongoing to determine if an officer or officers might bear responsibility for Harris’ death and whether the AG can investigate further.

Among the many unanswered questions is whether the visiting social workers should have called police in the first place, as well as the proportionality of the cops’ response once they did. 

News reports late last year indicated 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.

But the progress of that, too, is unclear, and the case does not seem to have moved forward. 

In fact, more than a year after Harris died in his own home, the public knows a frustratingly similar amount about happened to him as we did in the days after his death: That is, not much of anything at all.

It’s a story stuck in time. So forgive us if it’s hard to look toward the future with so much about the past still unanswered for.

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