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Pierce County candidate with pro-law enforcement platform shoots at suspected car thief

A middle age man in a striped button up and blazer stands in front of a body of water.
Tim Pierson Photography
Pierce County Council
Josh Harris, a Pierce County Council candidate, entered the race on a pro-law enforcement platform after bailing out three Tacoma police officers who face criminal charges for the death of Manuel Ellis. On Monday, he fired multiple rounds from a handgun at an auto-theft suspect near a homeless encampment with police officers within earshot, according to Tacoma police and the Pierce County prosecutor’s office.

Editor’s note: This story was produced in partnership with The Seattle Times

A Pierce County Council candidate who is running on a pro-law enforcement platform fired multiple rounds from a handgun at an auto-theft suspect Monday near a homeless encampment with police officers within earshot, according to Tacoma police and the Pierce County prosecutor’s office.

The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said it will investigate the incident to determine whether Josh Harris will face criminal charges, or whether his gunfire was justified in self-defense.

Harris was not arrested, and despite his personal relationship with the Tacoma Police Department, it remains the investigating agency. Harris last year posted a $300,000 bail bond for three Tacoma officers charged with killing Manny Ellis, whose suffocation death sparked widespread protests in 2020. Harris’ brother also served as the department’s chaplain.

On Monday, Harris set out in search of what he described as a stolen vehicle at a homeless encampment, where he soon summoned police. The incident ended dramatically, with a suspected car thief allegedly trying to get away by driving toward Harris, and Harris firing a handgun at the car and its fleeing driver.

A Tacoma Police Department news release about the incident described Harris only as “an armed citizen,” because department policy prohibits naming victims, according to spokesperson Wendy Haddow. The Pierce County prosecutor’s office, however, named Harris as the armed citizen.

Neither police nor prosecutors named the 40-year-old man suspected of auto theft who was wounded in the incident. It’s not clear from police accounts whether the suspect was wounded by Harris’ gunfire or in the course of fleeing. He was detained and hospitalized, and is expected to be booked in jail in Pierce County upon his release.

Harris’ history of pro-law enforcement actions include intervening in a Pierce County investigation into allegations that Sheriff Ed Troyer falsely reported that a Black newspaper carrier had threatened him in January 2021.

Harris came forward to report that he, too, had confronted the newspaper carrier and drew his concealed handgun during a tense conversation. Troyer faces trial in July on a misdemeanor charge of false reporting; he has pleaded not guilty.

Last week, The Seattle Times reportedthat Harris, the 47-year-old owner of Tacoma-based Integrity Construction, had several theft convictions, including one felony count for altering checks from a client in the amount of $24,000, which he said he was owed because he felt underpaid. “I’m not embarrassed of it,” he said in an interview last week.

Following both convictions, Harris was allowed to serve his sentences as in-home detention in lieu of incarceration.

Harris, who filed as a Republican to run for the open Pierce County Council seat representing Gig Harbor and parts of Tacoma, told The Times in a recent interview that he has spent a great deal of time talking with residents of homeless encampments in Pierce County to better understand the crisis, and invited a reporter to accompany him.

He did not respond to messages Wednesday seeking comment.

A flurry of gunshots

Harris visited a homeless encampment near Cheney Stadium Monday afternoon seeking to recover stolen property, according to Tacoma police and the prosecutor’s office. He found the stolen car at the encampment, where a man allegedly confronted Harris and threatened to kill him. Harris called police just before 4:50 p.m.

Officers instructed Harris to wait at a distance while they contacted people in the camp to investigate. The suspected thief sped in a vehicle past the officers toward where Harris was waiting.

Harris told police the suspect was barreling toward him, so he drew his concealed handgun and began shooting at the suspect. At least two rounds hit the car as it drove away.

A woman who lives in the wooded camp said she knew Harris because he had driven there before, and spoke to him minutes before the shooting.

The woman, who spoke on the condition she remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from police, said Harris and another man pulled up in a truck and took a car dolly, beer kegs, and a toolbox they believed had been stolen, then drove deeper into the woods to search for the canopy of a truck they believed had been stolen.

She said the shooting victim came by a few minutes later looking for the dolly, then headed into the woods the way Harris had gone. A short time later, she said, she heard a flurry of gunshots and screaming.

She said she saw the shooting victim tearing back through the woods in his vehicle, with the windshield riddled with bullet holes and blood coming from his hand, eyebrow, and head. He begged her for help, she said, and then drove off.

Police later recovered the bullet-riddled car. Police also located the suspected thief and detained him on suspicion of possession of stolen property and aggravated assault for allegedly driving toward Harris.

Harris provided officers with proof of his concealed-carry permit. Although Harris has been convicted of a felony, he had his right to possess firearms reinstated by a Pierce County court and legally obtained his permit, according to the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Police seized Harris’ gun.

Adam Faber, spokesman for the prosecuting attorney’s office, said it’s too soon to tell whether the Tacoma Police Department has a conflict of interest that would disqualify it from the investigation. “We can’t prejudge that before seeing the investigation,” Faber said.

Haddow, spokesperson for the Tacoma Police Department, declined to answer whether Harris’ personal and familial relationships with the department could constitute a conflict of interest that would disqualify the department from investigating the incident.

Harris is competing with four other candidates for the Pierce County Council District 7 seat, which is vacant.

Updated: June 1, 2022 at 9:29 PM PDT
Added clarification that the Pierce County prosecutor’s office named Harris, not Tacoma police.
Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.
Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.