Catching up … with former Atlanta Police LGBT liaison Dani Lee Harris

Name a trial or a tribulation and Dani Lee Harris can probably top it. Raised by a single mother on welfare in the projects in Harlem, New York. Shuffled through the foster care system. Lost a mother to lupus at age 17. Shot in the face at age 24. Came out as intersex.

The latest tribulation (that almost led to a real trial) was a years-long odyssey that started in 2009. Harris, who prefers he/him pronouns, was then six years into a career as an officer with the Atlanta Police Department and four years in as the department’s LGBT liaison when he made comments critical of the department’s handling of the illegal raid on the Atlanta Eagle.

The following April, he filed a complaint alleging anti-gay bias by an APD administrative assistant. Two days later he was sent home, the department later saying he was put on medical leave due to two grand mal seizures he had had in recent months. This was despite Harris’s claims that he was cleared to work by a doctor.

That September, Harris accused the department of “blackballing” him from the job, claiming it was retaliation for his comments about the Eagle raid and the complaint he filed. He was finally allowed back to work that October, but not as LGBT liaison.

Harris sued the city in federal court last July. According to the lawsuit, Atlanta Police administrative assistant Sandy Bradley told Harris, who had come out publicly as intersex, “Why you gay, I don’t understand?” the suit states. Bradley also told Harris, “Why can’t you settle in with a man and get the same feelings or emotions from a heterosexual relationship.” The suit states Bradley went on to say, “I want to tell you something Harris, I really like you, but what I don’t like about you is that you walk around here like a fucking man with a dick.”

Harris agreed to a settlement of $140,000 earlier this month, but he didn’t consider the suit completely settled until now. Harris now holds a doctorate in business administration and is a published author and adjunct professor. He’s leaving law enforcement behind.

You were born in the Bronx and raised in the projects in Harlem by a single mom. Can you talk about what it was like growing up in that situation?

Financially it was very difficult growing up, we were extremely poor. My mom had lupus while we were growing up and she fought at least 12 years for disability, so in the meantime we were on welfare. And she didn’t end up getting disability before she died. So we grew up on welfare so it was very difficult having hand-me-downs.

But one thing I love to express about my childhood was that by not having any of the material things in life, my mom fostered a very loving kind of family. So I am grateful that we knew what love was and what it meant to accept differences. My mother stressed being accepting of people’s differences and I think she did that because she had a tough time being sick and people accepting her.

But other than that, it was a group home system, which was the worst in the world [laughs]. I don’t care what nobody says, growing up as a number in and out of the foster care system made me a very angry child. I hated the fact that I felt like a number, like I was somebody’s paycheck and it wasn’t about love. Honestly that’s why I didn’t find out I was intersex for so long. It wasn’t like I was in a group home and they took me to the doctor on a regular basis and found out what was going on with me, you know. So I didn’t find out until much later in life because I was a number.

So growing up was really difficult but again, it taught me the basics of being humble and accepting differences and knowing what it really meant to love people regardless.

Dani Lee Harris is in the process of leaving law enforcement. (Photos by Patrick Saunders)
Dani Lee Harris is in the process of leaving law enforcement. (Photos by Patrick Saunders)

And your mother died of lupus after contracting AIDS when you were just 17, and you decided to raise your younger siblings with your sister?

Correct, we took turns. Her and I weren’t always in the same household so at certain points I had the youngest and my younger brother and she had one, and then it kind of switched on and off as they grew. It was very difficult but we both raised the three younger siblings just to keep them out of the foster care system because we hated that system so much.

Tell me about what happened when you got shot when you were 24.

So my best friend in Brooklyn’s nephew, he used to stay over at my house on the weekends because his mom would put him out on the weekends. So he was welcome like family. He would stay on the couch on weekends but unbeknownst to me I did not know that at the time he was trying to sleep with my 14-year-old sister. But my brother, who’s three years younger than I am, he knew, so he had a conversation with the guy and was like hey, “Do me a favor, leave my little sister alone.”

So this particular day, him and my brother got into an argument and my brother beat him up pretty bad and then my brother stabbed him in the head. He tried to stab him in the heart but my best friend came upstairs and heard the commotion and actually got my brother and her nephew apart.

When I came home 7:30 at night, my best friend came out and met me in the hallway and he was like, “Hey, this is what happened.” And he said, “Listen, do me a favor. If somebody knocks on your door tonight, just don’t answer it.” And I said okay, no problem. He goes, “I’m serious, don’t answer the door.”

I went in the house and not even 45 minutes later, there’s a knock on my door. It was the guy’s mother, who is the sister-in-law of my best friend. So when I saw her face, I thought she was coming to talk, she’s an adult. Unbeknownst to me there were about 18 others with her in the hallway and she grabbed me by my neck and pulled me out into the hallway. She went to shoot my brother, I moved his arm, the bullet went into the wall. My brother locked me out of my apartment, I was in the hallway with these 18 people and they wind up jumping me.

I was in the fetal position on the floor and then I heard them running away. I’m thinking they’re all gone so I never look behind me but I got to my knees and started banging on my door about them being gone. I did not know that this gentleman was behind me pulling the trigger. I turned at the same time, and he was trying to shoot me execution style, and it went off in my face. Then he tried to shoot me three more times but the gun jammed.

So again, that was one of those experiences that, as crazy as it sounds, it really helped me out in the rest of my life because I again learned the value of life. Because I actually had an out-of-body experience, so it really changed my perspective on life altogether.

And it’s so ironic because the guy tried to shoot me in the back of the head and in my back but the gun kept jamming. Last year, he himself was the victim of a shooting and he got shot in the back of the head and in his back. He died. He had just came out of jail after doing 18 years for shooting me. So it’s just kind of ironic how life kind of comes full circle and karma catches up to you because he died the same way he tried to kill me.

So what was your recovery from the gunshot wound like?

I was shot on the left hand side of the face and the bullet was lodged in my spine for eight years. I actually moved to Georgia, I was on patrol with my partner and when I turned to the right he said, “What’s that in your neck?” I did not know that the bullet had traveled from my spine to my carotid artery and wrapped itself around the carotid artery. So every time I turned to the right it was bulging out, but it wasn’t painful enough so I didn’t really know that it was there. When he said that, I pulled down the visor and saw it and said, “Oh! That’s the bullet!” [laughs].

I went to the hospital right away but I couldn’t get an MRI at the time because of the metal in my body so I went and got a dye test and they were able to pinpoint exactly where the bullet was. We scheduled the surgery, they were able to do a nice little slice on my neck and take the bullet out. So I’m very fortunate to have made a full recovery, the bullet never penetrated my spine or any other artery and I was able to get it removed and not have any repercussions from that shooting at all.

What did you do with the bullet?

I kept the bullet but my ex-wife, she actually lost it. She had a bad car accident and it was in the car and the car flipped and we never found it. But honestly I’m kind of glad it’s gone, I needed to let it go anyway.

So how and when did you make your way from New York to Atlanta?

When I was younger, in my late teens or early ’20s, I was dating a young lady whose family lived here. We used to drive down from New York every other weekend, it was like the funnest thing ever. You know, you just have nothing to do, you just go ahead and drive.

So we would come down here every other weekend and it was a place that I said if I ever move, I will move here. And then 9/11 happened. 9/11 was the straw the broke the camel’s back for me. I did not want to be in New York anymore. New York just had bad memories for me. So [Dani and her then-wife] saved everything we had from 2001 to 2003 and moved down here.

When did you first think that you wanted to get involved in law enforcement?

I think I’ve always known growing up, I’ve always had the inclination that I was supposed to be in law enforcement. I always just wanted to give service that way and I also had a friend who was an NYPD officer, he was an Italian guy and he used to come to the [teen] center that I worked at and always talked to me about how I needed to be a police officer.

At that time I grew up with a bad taste about police officers but there was something that he said that really resonated in my spirit which was, “In order for you to change the system, you have to become a part of the system. You can’t always stand on the outside of the system complaining about it. The way you want to be treated is the way you can treat others as an officer.” That conversation just really changed my life. From that point on, I was law enforcement-bound.

So you joined the force in June 2003 and became LGBT liaison in 2005. What were those days like before things started to go south in 2009?

Ah man, under the old regime, when I tell you it was lovely. Under the [Chief Richard] Pennington administration, first of all he had done such a great job getting rid of the good old boy system. He was a chief that believed that you put people where they need to go and where their skill set is. So being under that kind of leadership was phenomenal. And then me getting the LGBT position and working in his office directly was phenomenal. I loved it! It was a pleasure going to work every day and it was a pleasure serving the LGBT community every day because I had his support and I had his staff’s support.

It wasn’t really until the turn of chiefs that it became a burden, and I’m not bashing my now-chief to say that he’s a bad chief but I believe that when it comes to serving positions, you should be hands-on as a chief. If you’re not involved, you really have no idea what’s happening behind the scenes when it comes to other people that you put in charge.

So what happened to me within the chief’s office under Chief [George] Turner is his direct major allowed what happened to me to happen. And that’s Deputy Chief [Erika] Shields. The fact that she allowed her assistant to speak to me in the manner that she spoke to me, and found out from personnel what she said, instead of her taking the position of “this is wrong,” she took the position of “this is my assistant and I’m going to protect her regardless of how wrong she is.” And that therefore opened up the avenue for the lawsuit.

I have never sued anybody a day in my life. I also honestly didn’t believe in suing people. But it was so incredible to me how you could continuously hide behind your name and your gold shield and act like this is okay to this day. She’s still a deputy chief, she still works there. And now the person works for her again! It’s incredible to me how you can allow this to happen and then nothing happens to this woman. There was no reprimand for her. She got an oral admonishment for sexual harrasment complaints by our chief. Where do they do that at?

Again, I’m disgusted by it and even a lawsuit doesn’t help at all because the good old boy system is back in place and they protect each other. If you’re in that clique, they’re going to protect you at all costs. And I will always be verbal about that because it is what it is. And I will never lie. If it’s the truth, I’m going to speak it. And that’s what got me in trouble in the first place.

There were two parts that were happening at the same time. One was the Eagle raid in the background and the other one was what happened in the office around the same time, which just made their retaliation that much greater.

Then I had the seizure and in turn they told the media that I was out on grand mal seizures. Mind you, I was always cleared by my doctor to come back to work. So then you take that and you lie, again. You lie to the public and tell the public that Harris is out on medical, which was always a lie. This is the stuff that they get to hide behind and it’s simply crazy to me.

So now with the lawsuit, it never settled. The reason it was never settled was because part of what I was asking for, was the fact that they kind of forced me out of APD. I lost a lot because of what happened and the retaliation that happened. So I asked for the reserve program with three years of service. They wanted to give me the three years of service but they don’t want me in the reserve program. So the lawsuit is still pending.

As a matter of fact, I just called my attorney [June 22] and told her to forget the reserve program. I’ll cut my tie, I’ll go ahead and retire at 15, although I’ve been there 12. I’ll get the three years of service, go ahead and retire at 15 and I’m done with them. I’m done. You just get so disgusted that you keep fighting these people, and right now it doesn’t cost the city a dime to put me in the reserve program.

They said that one of the upper command staff, which I know is Shields, does not want me in the program. So you see how further retaliation continues. Why would you have anything to do with me being in the reserve program that has nothing to do with you? It doesn’t make any sense but they still want to fight every step of the way. They had nothing to do with the amount, because that went through accounting, but this other stuff that they’re saying? They’re going to the attorney telling her not to settle it. It’s crazy to me.

It’s settled now because I let it go. I talked to my wife about it and she was like, “Do you feel like they won?” I said no, either way they didn’t win but at the end of the day I felt like I should at least be able to get the reserve program. But the other side of me says that’s a tie that I need to cut. So go ahead and let them have it. Let me go ahead and move on.

That’s why I went back to school to get my doctorate. That’s why I went back to school to finish my masters while I was out, just so I can have another avenue and not have to have a tie. So why continuously ask for a tie to this agency when I don’t have to have one? At this point, that’s why I’m letting it go. Otherwise I would fight them again. It’s been five years, I’ll fight them for another five years just to make a point. But at the end of the day, who wins? It’s neither here nor there at this point, I’m just done.

So are you done with law enforcement altogether?

I am for now in that capacity, when it comes to policing. I’m going to teach. I do teach right now, I love it. That’s really my passion and my calling. So I appreciate Chief Pennington for giving me the opportunity to become the liaison which then in turn led me to my passion. I’m going to continue to teach, take some online classes. I like adjunct because I’m not really tied to any one school so I’ll continue to do that, and I still do corporate training and stuff so I’ll continue to do what I love to do.

What do you think you’ll miss the most about law enforcement?

Some of the people. And the community that I served. I enjoyed serving the LGBT community, as messy as we can be at times, and as ungrateful [laughs] as we can be at times, as much as we fight, at the end of the day there’s no greater community to serve than those that are constantly having to fight for something. I enjoyed working the LGBT position and I will definitely always miss that. That was always the best part about coming down here to Georgia.

You talked earlier about your mom fighting for disability for 12 years. There are some parallels there with you and her as far as that fight. Do you think you got that fight from her?

You know, I never really put that together, it’s amazing how you just did that that quickly. I never really looked at it like that but you’re absolutely right. But you know what, my mom was truly a fighter. When I tell you she fought to the end, just to get her kids back for example, in the end when they took the kids. She fought to make sure that we stayed together, even up until her death. My mother was a fighter definitely. I know I got it from my mom. | @patricksaunders