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A case study in how to stop cop shootings

She knows she won't get much sympathy; she doesn't expect any.

When your son shoots two cops and leaves one fighting to walk again, you don't expect much understanding, empathy or prayers. Most of that goes to the victims.

What Theresa Moore does expect is justice.

Her definition of justice, though, may differ from that of most when it comes to a teenager caught with a gun, who panics and shoots at the police chasing him.

"Jail is not going to help him," Moore says of her son, 19-year-old Varner Harris Jr. "I think he needs some psychiatric help."

She says it with the conviction of a mother who complains that a mental treatment facility released Harris before it should have after he talked of suicide a few years ago. She says it with the certainty of a mother whose son was in Hopevale, a school for youth with emotional and learning problems, where his cognitive skills were in the "slow learner to mild mental retardation range."

She says it with the regret of a mother whose son wouldn't take his Prozac and whose first brush with the law two years ago ended without the court being made aware of those problems when it freed him on probation.

None of that excuses Harris' actions. In fact, many -- maybe most -- will choke on their coffee at any such "explanation" while Officer Patricia Parete fights spinal injuries and Officer Carl Andolina fights the thought he could have done more, despite being shot himself.

But even those ready to lock Harris away for life -- or worse -- have to be concerned by one question his case raises: How many more like Varner Harris are out there, and who will catch the next bullet?

"There are a ton of people in the community . . . who are on the streets who need to take medications who aren't taking them," said Charles P. Ewing, a forensic psychologist and University at Buffalo law professor, when told of Moore's laments.

His mother said Harris was in a local psychiatric facility for two to three weeks in 2003 or 2004. He was put on Prozac and released because doctors thought he was ready. She felt he wasn't.

"I wanted him to stay in there a little longer," Moore said.

Hospital officials, handcuffed by privacy laws, can't comment, even to confirm or deny Harris was ever a patient.

Moore says when her son got out, he saw another doctor, who also prescribed Prozac and another medication, but Harris thought he didn't need them and stopped taking them.

Then came an "opportunity," if you can call it that. Harris and some friends robbed a pizza deliveryman. Because of his relatively minor role, he got probation in May 2005. Ewing said courts can make complying with treatment plans a condition of probation -- if a judge knows. But no one brought up Harris' medical history. His attorney, Paul G. Dell, said there was no need, given Harris' minor role. Why didn't Moore?

"They never asked," she said. "They just assumed that he was a fine 18-year-old, which he's not."

She knows she faces tough questions, like why Harris got involved with a bad crowd or where he got the gun. She expresses sympathy for the wounded officers and their families. But she also feels justice demands her son get treatment now, "even though he did what he did, and he was wrong."

How does society protect itself and prevent others from doing what Harris is accused of?

"Get [them] the help they're supposed to get, before it ever comes to that," Moore says.

That will be of little comfort to Parete, Andolina and those who care about them. But for the rest of us, it's something to ponder.


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