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Crime & Justice

6 months after the killing of Andrew Brown Jr., Elizabeth City community pushes for change

Andrew Brown Jr., a 42-year-old Black man, was shot five times, including once in the back of the head, when Pasquotank County deputies tried to serve drug-related search and arrest warrants at his home April 21. (Kate Medley / WUNC)
Kate Medley
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WUNC
Andrew Brown Jr., a 42-year-old Black man, was shot five times, including once in the back of the head, when Pasquotank County deputies tried to serve drug-related search and arrest warrants at his home April 21. (Kate Medley / WUNC)

Alana Jones has spent part of the last six months reflecting on what happened the morning of April 21, when Pasquotank County Sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. as they carried out drug-related search and arrest warrants in Elizabeth City.

Jones, a preschool teacher at the time, says the marches, which wove through the harbor community of about 18,000 residents, were her first ever protests.

“I was out there for my kids — (and) students — I was out there for my stepson, I was out there for everybody. And most importantly, I was out there for Andrew Brown and making sure that he got the justice that he deserved,” said Jones, 22, who joined the marches with her husband and then-3-year-old stepson.

The killing prompted national attention and questions around law enforcement arrest tactics. But in the months since, both the large daily protests in support of Brown and the national media attention have waned.

Brown’s family and others are still waiting for key developments in the case — including the results of an ongoing FBI probe, a family lawsuit seeking millions of dollars in damages, and a media petition for the public release of body camera footage.

In this time, the case has highlighted North Carolina’s legislation surrounding access to body camera footage, the power that judges hold over that access, as well as the role district attorneys play in determining the legality of police arrest strategy.

A DA’s Determination


A month after Brown’s death, District Attorney Andrew Womble announced he had reviewed the probe by the State Bureau of Investigation and determined that Brown’s killing was justified. His office would not pursue criminal charges against the officers involved, he said.

Womble played snippets of body camera footage to reporters and said Brown had used his car “as a deadly weapon” in his interaction with law enforcement officers — both in backing up and in attempting to drive away. Some reporters questioned Womble’s description of the footage and qualification of Brown’s car as a “deadly weapon.”

At the time, attorneys for the family said in a statement that “not only was the car moving away from officers, but four of them did not fire their weapons — clearly they did not feel that their lives were endangered.”

But Womble was undeterred in his opinion that the deputies' lives were at risk.

“I don't care what direction you're going: forward, backward, sideways. I don't care if you're stationary, and neither do our courts and our case law,” Womble said at the time.

Brown family attorneys Chantal Cherry-Lassiter and Benjamin Crump did not reply to WUNC’s recent requests for interviews.

Khalil Ferebee, one of Brown's children, said the video segment he viewed earlier in April, showed that his father “got executed just by trying to save his own life.”

As the SBI turned over its investigation files to Womble, the agency said in a statement that it “supports transparency to the greatest extent possible allowed by the law, as we think this serves the interests of the citizens of North Carolina."

A month later in June, the official autopsy report determined that Brown had died from a “penetrating gunshot wound of the head,” reconfirming the primary finding of an independent autopsy commissioned by the family.

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Kate Medley
A memorial set up surrounding the home of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, NC, as photographed May 2, 2021.

The Cost Of A Life


Brown’s family in July filed a $30 million civil rights lawsuit claiming that Brown died because of officers' "intentional and reckless disregard of his life."

The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in eastern North Carolina, is the latest in a string of federal civil rights lawsuits in the wake of high-profile police shootings of Black and Brown people in the country. Many have ended in settlements that often include money but specify there was no admission of guilt. Some end up in court where a jury can award massive settlements that are whittled down on appeal.

The family of George Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis police custody last year, agreed to a $27 million settlement in March. In September 2020, the city of Louisville, Kentucky, agreed to pay Breonna Taylor's family $12 million and reform police practices.

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Payton Sickles
Protesters and members of the Brown family gather by a mural in his honor, in the days following his death.

Sheriff’s Office Changes


In the days following Brown’s death, the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office announced they had recruited an outside group to evaluate its deputies’ actions. Chief Deputy Daniel Fogg said the office had called on the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association to help find outside sheriff's office representatives to conduct an investigation of all individuals who were involved in the incident.

One of the deputies who fired his gun at Brown's car resigned in June. A representative for the FBI’s Charlotte Field Office confirmed to WUNC that the agency’s civil rights investigation into Brown’s death is still ongoing.

Also in June, a group of local NAACP leaders traveled to Washington D.C. to request that the federal Department of Justice launch their own investigation into Brown’s death. Specifically, the group wants to see the DOJ carry out a pattern-or-practice review investigation, a type of probe that looks into “excessive force, biased policing and other unconstitutional practices by law enforcement,” according to the DOJ.

The shooting has drawn scrutiny from outside law enforcement observers who say that police officers should not shoot at a vehicle when there is no other deadly threat besides the car.

Sheriff Wooten said that the deputies who fired their weapons in the incident would be "disciplined and retrained.” He listed a number of issues with how the attempted arrest was handled, including that two deputies did not turn on body cameras and the SWAT team did not have EMS on standby. Wooten said that in the future he would require the threat assessment review for technical operations be prepared in writing, rather than discussed verbally as was the case in the Brown events.

In a video posted to Facebook, Wooten said his office had “spoken to national experts about how to better implement best practices with our team” and that the “SWAT team will be reconfigured and retrained.”

In addition, Pasquotank County commissioners approved $9,000 in de-escalation training for Wooten’s office, according to county records. That training is set to begin in January and will include "Duty to Intervene" courses. The responsibility of officers to intervene in situations where colleagues may use excessive force was also recently enshrined in North Carolina in September when House Bill 536 was signed into law.

Commissioners also approved funding for new sheriff’s office peace initiatives. Arizona based non-profit Police2Peace received a contract for up to $50,000 to carry out the initiative that includes "Micro Community Listening Sessions" and a "Peace Officer framework."

“It is a move forward,” Pasquotank NAACP President Keith Rivers told WAVY news following the board of commissioners meeting.

Andrew Brown Jr., a 42-year-old Black man, was shot five times, including once in the back of the head, when Pasquotank County deputies tried to serve drug-related search and arrest warrants at his home April 21. (Kate Medley / WUNC)
Kate Medley
May 2, 2021 file photo of a mural in Elizabeth City, N.C. that pays tribute to Andrew Brown Jr.


Full Footage On Hold

Six-months after Brown’s killing, the full body camera footage captured on April 21 has still not been released to the public. Legal efforts to seek the footage continue — Sheriff Wooten, as well as a coalition of media outlets including WUNC, continue to push for the full release. The Brown family withdrew their initial petition for full release, but intend to pursue release of the video through federal litigation.

The media coalition’s lawyer Mike Tadych argues in an amended petition that because District Attorney Womble did not bring charges against the officers involved, all video should be released. There would be no trial, and therefore no jury to prejudice.

The petitions have faced repeated delays in the court system. Wooten was originally set to go before a court in July. His next court appearance is now scheduled for the Nov. 15 session. Pasquotank County Attorney Mike Cox confirmed last week that it remains the sheriff's position that the video should be released.

Tadych laid out the media coalition’s amended arguments in a hearing on Sept. 13. The coalition has not heard from the court since then. Under North Carolina law, only a court may order the release of video. Law enforcement agencies that collect the video must first petition the court before they release any video they collect. A new state law signed by the governor in September creates a timeline for how quickly body camera footage should be disclosed, but does not regulate its release.

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Kate Medley
A plane flies a banner honoring Andrew Brown Jr. over his funeral Monday, May. 3, 2021. The funeral service was held at Fountain of Life Church in Elizabeth City, NC.

A Patient Push For Long-Term Change


As efforts to seek full release of the Brown body camera footage endure, national public attention on the case has waned. Jones, the Elizabeth City native who was heavily involved in protests in the spring, says she’s had to shift her focus.

“It just kind of goes from tragedy to tragedy to tragedy,” said Jones about the news in Elizabeth City. “There is like, ‘OK, back to business as usual.’ You know, it's that mindset, and that's a little heartbreaking.”

Jones no longer marches through the city to protest Brown's killing. But she’s hopeful for long-term change. One shift she’d like to see is a further rewrite of North Carolina body camera laws.

“I'm hopeful that eventually the body cameras will become accessed publicly and readily available for anybody who wants to go and see it,” said Jones. “What's the sense of having that false sense of security and that false sense of transparency, if there is no transparency in the end.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 
Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.