The Elizabeth City shooting has made northeast North Carolina into the center of the racial justice movement for now.
Andrew Brown Jr.’s killing by local deputies last month in Elizabeth City was “justified” because his vehicle endangered law enforcement, local District Attorney Andrew Womble told reporters Tuesday.
But Womble, who’s been under fire from civil rights leaders for weeks for his handling of the case, isn’t likely to have convinced many of Brown’s family members and civil rights advocates who have made northeastern North Carolina the focus of the racial justice movement in recent weeks.
“Do I think people will see what they want to see? Absolutely,” Womble said.
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Brown was unarmed. And most of the shots fired at the 42-year-old came with Brown’s vehicle driving away from deputies. But Womble claimed multiple times Tuesday that the tape offered “clear” evidence law enforcement acted properly as they attempted to serve drug-related arrest and search warrants, even if the questions of many reporters Tuesday made it apparent that the details weren’t so clear.
Many police policy groups typically advise against firing at moving vehicles as deputies did in Brown’s case.
Tuesday’s press conference also included footage never seen before by the public in Brown’s case.
The family, advocates, and state Attorney General Josh Stein have called for a release of all of the bodycam footage, but such footage is not considered public record in North Carolina. Superior Court Judge Jeff Foster ruled against making that footage public this month.
Womble, who serves a seven-county judicial district that includes Pasquotank County, offered his conclusions following a review by the NC State Bureau of Investigation. The SBI review is not public record either, but the agency—which typically reviews officer-involved shootings—said the decision about whether or not deputies would face charges is left to Womble.
“After providing the facts to the District Attorney, it was his duty to apply the law to those facts to make the ultimate decision about whether criminal charges were appropriate,” the agency said. “The NC SBI does not make any determinations as to whether criminal charges should be filed and/or determine if a person’s actions are justified or not. Furthermore, in its role as impartial fact-finder, it is not the NC SBI’s place to agree or disagree with any prosecutor’s decision regarding an investigation.”
Womble’s description of the incident is a major departure from that of Brown’s family and attorneys, who called his killing an “execution.” Advocates have described the shooting of Brown—a father who grew up in Elizabeth City—as further evidence of systemic racism in the courts and in law enforcement. A Harvard study last year found Black people were three times more likely to be killed by police than white people.
“The decision not to bring charges against those who killed Andrew Brown Jr. is a sign that the system is working as it was designed to,” Kristie Puckett-Williams, director of the NC ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said in a statement Tuesday. “These cases of state-sanctioned murder are not anomalies. They are business as usual. Until we have radically changed the many ways the criminal legal system harms and kills Black and Brown people, justice will continue to elude its victims.”
What does the tape show?
Brown’s April 21 shooting, just hours after a Minneapolis jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, transformed northeast North Carolina into the latest focal point for civil rights activists seeking police reform.
The segments of bodycam footage Womble played for reporters on a projector screen Tuesday morning in Elizabeth City were brief and shaky. They showed multiple armed deputies surrounding Brown’s vehicle as he sat in the driver’s seat. Deputies shouted instructions at him, at which point Brown backed his vehicle up to his home, allegedly jerking a deputy who had his hand on the door handle, according to Womble.
When deputies surrounded his vehicle again, Brown attempted to drive away, forcing one officer to jump out of the way. At one point, another deputy could be seen putting his hand on the hood of the vehicle and moving out of the way as Brown attempted to flee.
This is around the time the first shot was fired, Womble pointed out. As Brown drove his vehicle away from deputies, numerous shots could be heard. The shot that killed him hit him in the back of the head, according to his autopsy. Brown’s car came to rest against a tree after crossing a vacant lot.
Deputies attempted life-saving treatment, but Brown was “clearly deceased” on the scene, Womble said. The entire exchange–from the moment law enforcement jumped out of their vehicle to surround Brown to the moment they pulled him from the vehicle–lasted 44 seconds, Womble said.
“When you employ a car in a way that puts officers’ lives in danger, that is a threat,” Womble said. It was not clear, however, that officers’ lives were in danger from the footage, a point alluded to multiple times by reporters questioning Womble Tuesday.
Multiple reporters questioned Womble’s characterization of the events on the video Tuesday, asking why deputies were firing at Brown when he appeared to be driving away.
“The law enforcement officers were duty-bound to stand their ground,” Womble said. “They could not simply let him go as has been suggested.”
There are several hours of bodycam footage in the Brown case, although officials in Pasquotank County have declined to release all but short segments. Womble said Tuesday the other footage doesn’t involve Brown directly.
Tuesday’s announcement isn’t likely to slow protests in Pasquotank County, which have continued for weeks since the shooting.