Utah Police Shooting Underscores the Added Threat Facing Black People on Bikes

Police stopped Patrick Harmon for riding his bike without a rear light. When he attempted to flee, officer Clinton Fox shot him three times in the back. Photo: The Harmon family via the Guardian
Police stopped Patrick Harmon for riding his bike without a rear light. When he attempted to flee, officer Clinton Fox shot him three times in the back. Photo: The Harmon family via the Guardian

The Salt Lake City police officer who shot and killed Patrick Harmon, 50, during a stop for biking without a light faces no charges, despite bodycam footage released this week that shows him firing three times while Harmon was running away.

Harmon was riding his bike when police pulled him over for not having a rear light. The officers claimed Harmon threatened to cut them with a knife, but the footage released this week shows Harmon attempting to flee when officer Clinton Fox shouted “I’ll fucking shoot you!” and fired.

Evidence from cities all over the country — in Minneapolis, in Tampa, in Chicago, in New York — shows that black Americans are stopped for these types of minor infractions while biking or walking at much higher rates than white Americans. The disparity of course extends to driving violations — the common thread is that police often stop people of color as a pretext to conduct intrusive searches.

With alarming frequency, these police stops escalate into violence. Police took Patrick Harmon’s life even though he posed no threat to them. “They just murdered him flat out,” Harmon’s niece Alisha Shaw told the Guardian. “They are lying. There is no way they were threatened by anything.”

The fallout from police brutality is far-reaching, and the effects include how people decide to get around. Research by Rutgers researcher Charles Brown has illustrated how the threat of racial profiling and police brutality prevent black people from cycling.

The racial disparities in police stops and unabated police killings highlight the need for both reforms to policing in general and to traffic enforcement in particular. A traffic safety strategy that relies on enforcement by a racially biased police force is not going to make people safer. Knowing the anti-black bias of local police, advocates like Oboi Reed of Slow Roll Chicago are calling for the removal of police enforcement from Vision Zero initiatives.

  • Vooch

    why is running away a capital crime ?

  • Simon Phearson

    It is in fact unconstitutional for the police to shoot you in the back, when you are fleeing, unless they have some reason to believe you’re going to harm someone else. That’s why these phantom knives and nonsensical threats are always part of the police narrative. It’s basically in the police handbook on getting away with murder: Claim you were afraid for your life.

  • Gregory Curtis

    I just watched the video and am back at stage one of no sympathy for Police and their jobs. Every time I begin to support their work a video like this comes out. That officer should not have a job.

  • William Lawson

    Totally unjustified, but it seems like a stretch to say that this is an issue about bicycles.

  • Streetsblog Network

    It’s not about bicycles. It’s intersectional. It’s something that some bicyclists unfortunately have to worry about

  • William Lawson

    With all due respect, I disagree. I don’t believe the fact that he was on a bicycle to be relevant at all. The same thing would have happened if he had been on a bicycle or on foot.

  • John Murphy

    No – if he was on foot they wouldn’t have been able to use “no rear light” as a pretext.

    This is why we should fight against helmet laws which will simply be used as a pretext.

  • Joe R.

    All true although they probably would have used some other pretext to stop him, like matching the description of a suspect, if he had been on foot. Any black male out at night is a target for police profiling.

  • sahra

    This is the point…that if you are a black bicyclist or pedestrian, you have many more barriers to accessing the street/public space. That’s why it matters and why it is a mobility issue. We can’t talk about walkability or bikeability and livability for all without also acknowledging that significant sectors of the population, particularly those that are most dependent on walking and biking, face so many more obstacles than white folks and others of privilege.

    As for the guy below that thinks they wouldn’t have found another excuse, please know that police are equally capable of stopping and frisking those on foot and giving out bogus tickets to justify the stop. Folks aren’t stopped because they’re lacking lights or a helmet. Those infractions just help justify the stop that likely would have taken place anyways.

    Police are a silent partner in planning and their treatment of folks of color must be part of the discussion around mobility, or streets will never be truly livable for those folks.

  • Joe R.

    It seems everyone here missed a very important fact. Let’s forget for a minute what happened after the suspect ran away. The police demonstrated major incompetence by failing to control the suspect while they were cuffing him. Had they done this, he couldn’t have attempted escape, and it would have just been another routine arrest. So really, the police messed up twice here, perhaps even three times if you consider that good policing doesn’t mean stopping people for minor BS infractions not like having a light on their bike.

    I wonder of any of those cops was ex-NYPD? Their poor attitude and general incompetence certainly fit the profile.

  • William Lawson

    I’m sorry but there is so much missing from this article. It does indeed seem as if the shooting might be unjustified, although you can’t really see clearly what he was doing at the point where he got shot. If you freeze frame it just before that moment, he appears to be turning around toward the cop with his hand in his bag.

    But what bothers me is the assumption that his detention and arrest was as the result of him “biking while black.” For example, this article claims that he was pulled over for merely not having a rear light, but conveniently ignores that he was also pulled over for cycling across six lanes and a median as well as the lack of a light. Would a white person have been stopped and given a ticket for the same thing? Very possibly, yes, considering how quick cops are to give out tickets for minor infractions to cyclists in general.

    Also missing from this article is the fact that he was being arrested for an outstanding warrant for aggravated assault. Why would you leave that part out, unless you were wanting to fraudulently paint this as a story of a man being shot for “merely having no tail light”?

    So while there is obviously a dialog to be had on the subject of black people being disproportionately harassed by police, cherry picking details from a story in order to bend it to an agenda isn’t exactly the way to go about it.

  • Joe R.

    A white person probably would have been stopped doing those things but would they have received similar treatment after the stop?

    As for the video, if you have to freeze frame it to possibly see a hint of a knife or other weapon, then it’s a given the police didn’t see this given the darkness and how rapidly events unfolded. Basically, it appears the cop made up his mind to shoot the fleeing suspect. There were shots fired tenths of a second after he may have turned. That’s not enough time for the cop to see what’s going on, if the suspect had a weapon, then decide to shoot. The still pictures I saw of the knife near the body also give me suspicion given the position of the knife relative to the body. It looks too perfect, almost as if it were placed there after the fact to justify the shooting.

    An autopsy can determine if the bullets entered through the back or front. If the former, then the shooting was 100% unjustified even if the suspect was armed as he posed no threat unless he faced the cops.

    In general, I’ll gladly defend police shooting when their lives are truly in danger. That doesn’t appear to be the case here.

  • sahra

    You have clearly been shielded from the indignity that comes with regular police stops all your life, and I am happy for you. But your lack of knowledge on the topic is rather startling and, to be honest, inexcusable, considering this has been a topic of national conversation for the last several years. So, take a breath and go and dig up some of the stats on stop-and-frisk and who is likely to be stopped and where they are likely to be stopped. You will find that lower-income communities of color are disproportionately targeted, as are folks of color.

    There is a insidious cycle these stops trigger. Friends, youth, and folks I know (something backed up by research I’ve done and that others working on this issue have done) are regularly stopped and harassed. They are almost always unlawfully searched and warrant checks are run…regardless of whether they were spitting on the sidewalk, standing outside their front door, or walking or biking to work. That’s where police begin – with the assumption that the person stopped is probably a criminal. The ticket for the lights (a common thing cyclists of color report to me, even in the middle of the day) “justifies” the stop and makes it harder for the person to file a complaint. A bogus ticket is often given that the recipient either can’t pay, can’t take off work to fight, or just tosses out angrily because it is bogus. That ticket will then turn into a warrant. So the next time they are stopped, they can be picked up. It’s why folks run. For poor folks, like the gentleman in this case – someone who was occasionally homeless and who was struggling – harassment by law enforcement is a regular thing. So the extent to which that charge he had was reflective of what happened is also unknown. I know too many people that have been handed charges that are not reflective of what actually went down, especially when it came to their interactions with police officers, but who have no capacity to fight those charges. So they become warrants, however injust [I make no claims on this particular case, I’m just speaking more generally]

    Law enforcement conduct these stops knowing that they offer excuses to run these checks. In this story I wrote, it was happening to youth around USC multiple times a day. For no reason other than that officers had been given the power to do it. http://la.streetsblog.org/2013/04/30/a-tale-of-two-communities-new-security-measures-at-usc-intensify-profiling-of-lower-income-youth-of-color/ But most white folks, when handed citations for jaywalking or no lights on a bike, do not have warrant checks run. Nor are they detained for extensive periods of time. Nor are they searched. They are handed their tickets and allowed to go merrily on their way. The disparity in treatment could not be more different.

    I am always fascinated by advocates who can so easily unpack bias in the way media and the authorities speak about pedestrians or cyclists or impose blame on those groups but who seem defensive and offended at the very notion of being asked contemplate that those same entities may carry additional layers of bias when it comes to folks of color, particularly black men…and that the consequences of those biases can be that much more deadly.

    White supremacy is a hell of a drug.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It’s worth noting that it doesn’t even appear that Harmon was breaking the law by not having a rear light on his bike. From the video it appears that his bike had a red rear reflector, which would be in compliance with Utah bike laws. https://www.bikelaw.com/2014/06/utah-bicycle-laws/

  • William Lawson

    I just wrote a lengthy reply to your comment but someone who obviously cannot cope with all sides of an argument being aired flagged it as spam. It really is sad when you cannot make rational, objective points without people objecting to them on the basis that they interfere with their agenda.

  • Joe R.

    I hope you saved it offline. I usually do that with most of my comments just in case. You might try reposting it tomorrow, hopefully when less tolerant people aren’t around.

    Just for the record, I agree with you about the selective omission of certain details in the article.

  • JK

    In 2015, 818 people were killed by automobiles while bicycling. How many people bicycling were shot and killed by the police? This is a repugnant crime, obviously the police should not be murdering people, but it is absurd to generalize from this to statements like:
    “A traffic safety strategy that relies on enforcement by a racially biased police force is not going to make people safer.”
    This is demonstrably wrong. When laws against red light running and speeding are enforced, whether by automated cameras or police — racist or otherwise — the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed and injured declines. Implicit in your remark is that unless a police force can somehow be determined to be non-racist, it would be better to have no traffic enforcement. Really? Are racial justice advocates now making common cause with the National Motoring Association? Who do you think will ultimately lose the most if the police abandon traffic enforcement? White people?

  • reasonableexplanation

    Agree with all points but one: riding without a rear light at night is not a BS infraction. People should be mercilessly ticketed for not having lights on a vehicle at night. I wish they were more often. this goes for cars and bicyclists (all motorcycle lights are always on by default, and honestly, I wish it were the case with cars too).

  • Joe R.

    I agree with you in principal. In practice, police unfortunately check for outstanding warrants. That means not having a light could land you in jail if you have an outstanding warrant for, say, skipping jury duty. Either the police shouldn’t check for warrants when they stop you for minor offenses, or they should only arrest you if you have outstanding felony warrants. In other cases they might just let you know you have an outstanding warrant for such and such minor offense.

    I always have my rear flasher on day or night. I keep the headlight off during the day because the color resembles daylight, it doesn’t flash, and it wouldn’t make me much more visible.

  • Joe

    I’m sorry, but this post is very misleading, as can be seen simply by reading the original article and reviewing the video.

    –“Harmon was riding his bike when police pulled him over for not having a rear light.”

    This completely omits that fact that the article states that the police witnessed him biking unsafely and erratically — crossing “all six road lanes and a median” — in addition to not having a rear light. This behavior made the officer want to investigate.

    It also leaves out that the officer quickly determined that Harmon had an outstanding warrant for aggravated assault. So the officer’s instincts were correct. Far from the posts implication that the officer was harassing an innocent cyclist, motivated by racial animus and anti-bicycle zeal, the officer made a good, justified stop, leading to the arrest of a man wanted for a violent crime.

    — ” the footage released this week shows Harmon attempting to flee when officer Clinton Fox shouted “I’ll fucking shoot you!” and fired.”

    No. The footage shows Harmon suddenly bursting away from the officers (while apparently physically pushing one or both of the officers down, though this is not clear), taking several steps away, then reaching into his pocket, then turning to confront the officers. THEN you hear the officer warn Harmon he will shoot, THEN the gunshots.

    You can’t make out a knife in the footage, but the police say he confronted them with a knife, and the video supports that. A knife was recovered at the scene.

    “Police took Patrick Harmon’s life even though he posed no threat to them. ”

    There is nothing in the video or article that supports this statement in any way. On the contrary, the evidence all seems to support that Harmon threatened the officers with a knife.

    It’s very disappointing for Streetsblog to publish a post like this. It contains numerous inaccuracies and misleading omissions. It is obvious to me that the author wanted to
    to prove a point and wasn’t interested in the complexity of the situation, or the truth. I’m sorry to say it, but in my opinion, posts like this diminish Streetsblog’s credibility.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    StreetsBlog certainly has an SJW agenda, but this shooting was in no way justified. The stop may have been, but the shooting wasn’t. Claiming he pulled a knife is BS. He was fleeing and was shot in the back. If you or I used lethal force in such a situation we would be charged with murder. And that is the problem with police use of force; they are held to a hugely different standard and that isn’t OK. At the time of the shots he was not a threat.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Shouldn’t check for warrants for minor stops? So if someone has a warrant for murder but you stop them for a busted taillight they should just go free? Seriously? You do realize many violent criminals are picked up as a result of PD contact resulting from minor infractions? What kind of illogic do you practice in the rest of your life?

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    William, that happens a lot here on SB. It’s a reflection of what has poisoned discourse in the US in general. Just shut down those that say things you don’t like or agree with. It is so productive .

  • Joe R.

    I mentioned a compromise, which is to check for warrants but only arrest them for outstanding felony warrants. I can’t see any logic hauling someone into jail because they maybe have unpaid traffic tickets or they skipped jury duty.

  • Joe R.

    They had his name and address. They could have let him escape and picked him up at home later.

    Unfortunately, all the police have to do is say they felt their lives were in danger and any use of lethal force is usually considered justified. The courts generally back them up on this. Police also often plant evidence after the fact to bolster their case. Based on the placement of the knife near the body I’d say that’s highly likely here.

  • Joe R.

    Unfortunately, way too many people here flag posts which differ from their point of view. I hardly flag posts. When I do, it’s always for obvious trolling, not for well-thought out arguments which might differ from my point of view.

  • Joe

    “Claiming he pulled a knife is BS”

    And you know this how?

    Were you a witness at the scene? Were you an investigator reviewing the evidence and the full videos? Did you interview the witnesses? Did you examine the coroners report?

    Or are you just stating your opinion, based on no facts or evidence whatsoever?

    “He was fleeing and was shot in the back.”

    Did you even watch the video?

    Watch it carefully. After appearing to shove suddenly past the officers, he fled for a few steps, then appeared to reach into his pocket, then turned to confront the officers.

    Do you have other evidence to indicate that he was shot in the back while fleeing? Or are you just making another unsupported statement?

    “The stop may have been [justified], but the shooting wasn’t.”

    Neither you nor I can say if the shooting was justified for certain. We have very limited information; the investigators from the DA’s office had access to far more, and now the investigators from the FBI will review it as well.

    Do you claim to have access to other evidence that proves the shooting was unjustified? Or are you…AGAIN…just making assertions with no evidence to back them up?

    If you, or anyone, has further information or evidence that can show facts beyond what we have seen, I am fully prepared to change my opinion based on the new facts.

    But the main point here is not whether the shooting was justified or not. We don’t have conclusive evidence of that either way. The main point is that the Streetsblog post by Angie Schmitt is MISLEADING. She misstates numerous facts and omits facts that would contradict her favored narrative, just based on the very ARTICLE and VIDEO the post is based on.

    Maybe you feel comfortable dismissing this distortion by saying “oh, well, Streetsblog has an SJW agenda, what can you do,” but I expect more. As an avid reader of Streetsblog, and a strong supporter of cycling and pedestrian safety, I depend on Streetsblog to get accurate and truthful information. I’m not interested in reading spin, propaganda, or lies, either about transportation issues OR about other issues that the author of this post may consider “intersectional.”

    Posts like this one damage Streetsblogs credibility. Streetsblog should retract or amend this post to correct the record.

  • Joe

    “They had his name and address. They could have let him escape and picked him up at home later.”

    He wasn’t trying to flee. Watch the video.

    “Police also often plant evidence after the fact to bolster their case. Based on the placement of the knife near the body I’d say that’s highly likely here.”

    Are you an expert on crime scene forensics? Did you investigate the scene to make that determination?

    Maybe you can explain to us the exact placement of the knife and how it led you to make that statement.

    Are you at all troubled that the video seems to show Harmon reaching into his back pocket before turning to confront the officers? Or do you have other evidence that led you to reach that conclusion?

  • Joe R.

    A few blurry frames which don’t conclusively show a knife doesn’t prove the officer’s lives were in danger. Also, even if there was knife they had other options, like tasing him (which one cop to his credit did), or shooting at his legs to disable him. It wasn’t like he was 50 yards away. If he was close enough that the police felt they were in imminent danger then he was close enough to reliably hit in the legs.

    As for the supposed knife, funny how it fell perfectly parallel to the body and out of his hands. If he really pulled it out, he most likely would have died clutching it. And then you have the fact the officers cuffed a wounded man before even calling for help. And this isn’t even getting into the what led to all this, which is the fact three officers couldn’t control a 50-year old man while they were cuffing him. My late father worked in law enforcement. He occasionally disarmed and restrained suspects who came at him with a knife, even into his 50s. He was never allowed to have a gun (HRA Police), so he had to use his brain and training instead. Why three officers couldn’t control their suspect is beyond me other than that they were grossly incompetent. Charges or not, if it were up to me none of them would have jobs.

  • Joe

    “.. frames which don’t conclusively show a knife doesn’t prove the officer’s lives were in danger.”

    Well, at least you’ve now watched the video. I never said the video “conclusively proved” anything. I said it showed him push away, take a few steps, reach into his pocket, then turn around. That is very different than simply “attempting to flee” as Angie Schmitt said, or “escape” as you said.

    Having watched the video, will you now concede that you were wrong about saying he was simply trying to escape? Can you see that the situation was more complex than that?

    It’s great that your father was in the HRA Police. Thank God that he was not harmed by the people who came at him with a knife. But we don’t know the full circumstances of those instances. Police officers are not ninja super-heros, able to safely and harmless disarm attackers in every instance. A knife can kill in an instant, and often the police have only seconds to react (like in this instance).

    Of course these kind of cases need to be fully investigated, by professionals, not by internet commenters who claim a picture they saw of the way a weapon fell proves anything (I think you know that’s really a stretch), or that cops should shoot a suspect in the legs (they are specifically trained not to do that… google “why don’t cops shoot to wound” if you want to understand the reasons).

    I can’t say for sure if the officers acted correctly or not, because I haven’t seen all the evidence, just the limited information in front of us. But I can at least accurately cite the evidence we do have. My main point remains, why can’t Angie Schmitt do the same?

  • dfiler

    My guess is that your main beef is not with all news articles that portray certainty that about things that are reasonably disputed.

    It seems more likely that you’re enraged by criticism of police or racial disparities in policing.

  • dfiler

    I don’t see how anyone can reasonably claim that crossing a road makes a cyclist suspicious. Even if it was a six lane road. And the police didn’t know about the warrant until they stopped him.

    I have been riding lightless at night for decades without ever being stopped. Also, i’ve crossed medians, sidewalks, curbs, park lawns, etc, all without being stopped. Were I black, I can guarantee I would have been stopped at least a few times throughout my life, simply for riding home after dark.

    This isn’t a baseless claim. Numerous studies and investigations of police conduct have statistically proven this is as a real phenomenon. Blacks are stopped for trivial reasons at a waaay higher rate.

    While I can’t claim to know if this particular tragedy was a result of stopping a man for “riding while black”. It does seem to be the most likely scenario.

  • Joe

    When you say “articles that portray certainty about things that are resonably disputed”, are you refering to this post?

    If so, we agree on that point. I hope that on reflection, you would also agree that the post does more than “portray [unreasonable] certainty”.

    Wouldn’t you agree, after watching the video, that the statement “the footage…shows Harmon attempting to flee when officer Fox shouted ‘Ill fucking shoot you!’ and fired,” is a bit more than “portrying certainty?”

    I think by omiting the facts that the footage shows Harmon pushed away from the officers, reached into his pocket, and turned and confronted them, this statement is actively deceptive.

    That’s just one example of numerous misleading statements in this post.

    I’m not enraged, but I am angered when an outlet I normally respect resorts to such tactics.

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