Seven law enforcement officers went to Andrew Brown Jr.’s home in Elizabeth City, N.C., to execute arrest and search warrants for nonviolent drug crimes. The cops found Brown in his car; 44 seconds later, they shot him dead — in the back of the head.
Pasquotank District Attorney Andrew Womble, announced this week that none of the officers would face charges. He claimed that Brown was using his car as a “deadly weapon, steering it toward officers." That “apparent danger,” even though no officers were injured, was enough to justify the use of deadly force, Womble asserted.
Leave aside that Womble has objected to the release of all the body cam videos, a move that does not inspire confidence in his fairness. Cherry-picking what evidence the public can see is the opposite of transparency.
Leave aside that while Womble claimed the body cam video showed Brown steering his car toward the officers, some of the reporters who viewed it said the video depicted Brown moving the car in a way to avoid hitting anybody.
Leave aside that Womble rejected the common sense calls from Brown’s family and the North Carolina governor to recuse himself, because he works with the same officers who he had to decide whether to prosecute.
What’s clear is that this death did not need to happen. Two officers positioned themselves in front of Brown’s car, and then used their vulnerability as an excuse to kill him. Womble claimed the police were “duty-bound to stand their ground, carry through on the performance of their duties and take Andrew Brown into custody.” This “dead or alive” mentality may be the law of old western movies, but the Constitution does not support it.
Just because someone resists arrest or tries to escape police custody does not entitle the police to kill. The law requires police act reasonably, in light of all the circumstances, including the crime the person is suspected of, and the danger he poses.
The reasonable thing, in this case, would be for the cops to get out of the way and let Brown escape. They could have arrested him another time; they knew where he lived and what his car looked like. Brown was wanted for nonviolent drug offenses, hardly a crime that justifies killing a suspect to prevent him from escaping.
If you don’t believe me, believe the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office manual, which advises, “Shots fired at or from a moving vehicle involve additional considerations and risks now rarely effective. When feasible, deputies should take reasonable steps to move out of the path when approaching a vehicle instead of discharging a firearm at the vehicle or any of its occupants.”
Womble said this was an “administrative policy” that had no bearing on his decision not to prosecute the officers.
This is sadly typical of how routine police practices devalue the lives of Black and Brown people. Recall the tragedy of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman killed by Louisville police during a botched search warrant raid of her apartment. Or Daunte Wright, killed in April during a routine traffic stop when police tried to arrest him on an outstanding warrant.
Every day the police confront people who do not feel like being arrested. Suspects should cooperate and fight the case in court, but if they make the bad decision to flee, they do not automatically deserve to die. No one disputes that police officers, like anybody else, should have the right to self-defense when lives are at risk. But the license to kill carries the responsibility to promote the sanctity of every life.
There are so many outstanding arrests warrants in the United States that no one is able to count them all. The numbers we know are astounding: In Ferguson, Mo., in one year, courts issued almost 33,000 warrants — in a city whose population was 21,000. In New York City, in 2016, there were 1.4 million, the majority for quality of life offenses such as riding a bicycle on the sidewalk or being in a park after closing time. In New Jersey, there are 2.5 million outstanding warrants.
The three officers who fired the shots that killed Andrew Brown Jr. are back on the force. The sheriff says they will be “retrained.” Their continued service as law enforcement officers is an insult to the memory of Brown, and a clear and present danger to the citizens they are supposed to protect. The failure to prosecute means yet another Black victim of police violence is denied equal protection of law.