The sheriff’s deputies who shot a 42-year-old Black man to death as he drove his vehicle last month in Elizabeth City, N.C., were justified in their actions because they had reason to believe they were in danger, Pasquotank County District Attorney Andrew Womble said during a news conference Tuesday.
Andrew Brown Jr. was fatally struck by gunshots on April 21 as he attempted to drive away from deputies who were executing a search warrant on felony drug charges at his home, The Washington Post reported. Womble, who previously said the shooting was justified, held the news conference to discuss details of the State Bureau of Investigation’s findings.
Womble said Brown’s attempt to flee escalated the situation from “a show of force to an employment of force.”
The legal team for Brown’s family issued a statement shortly after Womble’s announcement, calling it an attempt to “whitewash” an “unjustified killing.”
“To say this shooting was justified, despite the known facts, is both an insult and a slap in the face to Andrew’s family, the Elizabeth City community and to rational people everywhere,” they said. “Not only was the car moving away from officers, but four of them did not fire their weapons — clearly they did not feel like their lives were endangered.”
Brown’s death came around the same time a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd. Floyd was a 46-year-old Black man who died after Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes in May 2020, setting off a national reexamination of policing tactics.
During the news conference, Womble recounted the events of April 21: Brown was sitting in his dark BMW on the day officers from multiple agencies attempted to serve search and arrest warrants based on alleged drug activity. Around 8:23 a.m., a detective drove his vehicle in front of Brown’s to prevent any forward movement.
Two deputies approached Brown’s car on the driver side as two others moved toward the passenger side with guns drawn as they gave commands to Brown, according to clips of the video Womble played at the news conference.
Brown threw down his phone as officers approached closer and quickly backed his car away from officers as one had his hand on Brown’s driver door handle. That deputy was pulled over the hood of the car, according to Womble.
When Brown backed up enough to the point where he was blocked by his home, he turned his steering wheel to his left toward law enforcement officers, who were scrambling to get out of the way and yelling for him to stop, according to Womble and video footage.
The first shot was fired during this moment, piercing the front windshield of Brown’s car as his vehicle continued to move. More shots followed, hitting Brown’s passenger window and rear passenger side door while his vehicle continued to accelerate across a vacant lot toward a white van occupied by an investigator. Officers fired five additional shots, which went through Brown’s rear windshield and trunk.
The total elapsed time from the first gunshot to the last was five seconds, which conflicts with eyewitness statements shared with the public, Womble noted.
Brown was slumped over when deputies opened his driver’s side door, prompting one to call out for emergency medical services, video showed.
Womble said a medical examiner confirmed with him on May 12 that Brown died of gunshot wounds. He suffered from a nonlethal wound in his right shoulder and a second wound in the back of his head at the base of the skull, where three bullet fragments were recovered.
Brown also had abrasions on his body that appeared to be caused by shrapnel, and a plastic bag in his mouth with a substance that’s consistent with crystal meth, although autopsy and toxicology reports haven’t been finalized, Womble said.
Officers fired two Glock 17 handguns and an AR-15 rifle, Womble said. Investigators recovered 14 spent shell casings, nine from the handguns and five from the rifle — findings that were consistent with body-camera footage.
The footage shared by Womble brought more questions by reporters at the news conference, who pressed him about saying Brown was aiming for officers instead of fleeing. The clips have also prompted more criticism about how authorities handled sharing information with the public.
Marquez Claxton, director of public relations and political affairs for the Black Law Enforcement Alliance, a human and civil rights think tank of advocates with law enforcement experience, told “Meet the Press” that the footage had been “cherry-picked” and lacked transparency. “This case is full of bias points. That is very troubling and disturbing, and why there has to be an increase in independent examination and investigation of not only this incident, but all police-involved shootings.”
Joey Jackson, a New York-based criminal defense attorney, told CNN that he found the news conference “disturbing” and said Womble “savaged” Brown by bringing up Brown’s past, underscoring the importance of grand juries when examining videos.
Womble said an investigation into Brown took place weeks before his death after a confidential informant confirmed to another county that Brown was a drug dealer. The informant and a detective made two undercover purchases of heroin laced with fentanyl and cocaine, according to Womble.
The Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office started gathering data on Brown around the same time and issued the warrant April 20 to search his house and vehicles along with arrest warrants for the sale of controlled substances.
Before the attempt to serve the warrants, multiple law enforcement teams had been briefed on Brown’s criminal history that included assault with a deadly weapon, as well as other charges dating from 1995, Womble said.
Brown’s family and activists have called for release of body-camera footage of the incident for full transparency. A Superior Court judge ruled on April 28 that video of Brown’s death would not be released to the public, saying that it could affect a trial if one were to happen and threaten the safety of the officers involved.
Judge Jeff Foster ruled that video from four body cameras blurring facial features and nametags of officers would be shared with one of Brown’s sons, immediate family and legal representatives.
Full video of the incident would be released to the family when the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation wrapped up its investigation of the shooting, the judge ruled then.
Attorneys for the Brown family are demanding that the court release the full video of Brown’s death along with the State Bureau of Investigation report, and requested that the Justice Department intervene immediately.
The SBI said in a statement on Tuesday that it was up to the district attorney to apply the law to the facts it gathered and to determine whether criminal charges were appropriate.
“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,” the agency said. “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.”
The agency also noted that it will not release any written reports about its investigation that it is not required to.
The family was shown clips of the shooting in April and viewed more videos last week, which included about 20 minutes of the full two hours of footage, CNN reported.
Immediately after the shooting, seven deputies were placed on administrative leave, but four have since returned to work because Pasquotank Sheriff Tommy Wooten II said it was “obvious” that they didn’t fire their weapons, WAVY-TV reported.
Wooten said in a Tuesday evening statement that the three officers who shot Brown will keep their jobs but face discipline and retraining.
His office conducted an internal investigation with the help of four investigators from different counties and an independent use-of-force and tactical expert.
Wooten said that two deputies didn’t turn on their body camera, which he called “unacceptable,” and that emergency medical services should have been on standby.
The sheriff said he will now require that all risk-threat assessments be standardized and placed in writing for future tactical operations.
He, along with the county, will ask the judge for permission to release the video to the public as soon as possible. Wooten also intends to release portions of the internal investigation and the independent expert’s preliminary report as soon as it’s clear that he can legally do so, he said.
“This should not have happened this way at all,” he said, directly addressing Brown’s family. “While the deputies did not break the law, we all wish things could’ve gone differently, much differently.”
Jim Morrison, Timothy Bella, Meryl Kornfield, Paulina Villegas and Mark Berman contributed to this report.
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