A North Carolina prosecutor today said that deputies were justified when they shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. as he attempted to flee officers in a car. District Attorney Andrew Womble held a press conference to share findings from the State Bureau of Investigation clearing the deputies. Womble also showed body camera video clips from four of the deputies on the scene.
Brown was shot and killed by deputies in Elizabeth City in Pasquotank County, North Carolina, as they raided his home on April 21. The officers had a search warrant for his arrest and were looking for drugs. The encounter ended with Brown getting shot five times while driving away from the police. Authorities said he made contact with the deputies with his vehicle, which justified the use of deadly force. Family members disputed this claim, insisting that Brown presented no threat to the deputies and was just trying to get away.
Complicating the situation are North Carolina public records laws that generally exempt law enforcement body camera footage. Only a judge has the authority to order camera footage to be made available to the public. Initially, even Brown's family was provided only a short clip of the incident.
The footage can be viewed here. The clips show the deputies arriving on Brown's property in a truck bed and then running toward a car Brown was already sitting in. Chatter at the start of a clip makes it clear that they already know he's in the car. The deputies have their guns out, pointed at Brown and the car. Brown backs up in the vehicle, then turns and attempts to drive away. In doing so, he does head toward a deputy, who backs away from the car and then reaches out with his arm and makes contact with the car. The car then careens away from the deputies as they fire on him. He travels about 50 feet before the car rolls to a stop.
While the video does appear to show the car "coming into contact" with deputies, it's also reasonable to observe that the deputies surrounded his car so that any attempt by Brown to flee the scene would require driving toward a deputy, and thus justify shooting him regardless of whether he intended to harm an officer. Womble actually acknowledged this in the press conference—that the only way Brown could flee was through the deputies—and said he didn't think Brown was actually trying to strike them.
The release of the video is important, even though it doesn't settle the question of whether the deputies' use of force was justified. Is this an example of how law enforcement escalates confrontations in ways that are likely to end up with citizens getting hurt or killed unnecessarily? Is it an example of unrealistic expectations that are the result of a drug war that gives no quarter? Would the manner by which the deputies attempted to arrest Brown have been appropriate if he had been wanted for violent crimes instead of drugs?
Womble told reporters at the press conference that the deputies did not have the option to let Brown drive away because "law enforcement are duty-bound," and delivering the warrant and arresting Brown "was their job on that particular day."
If "duty" currently requires police practices that can so easily escalate to killing a man over small amounts of drugs, perhaps we should redefine the concept. North Carolina, meanwhile, should definitely revisit the law it passed restricting public access to on-body cameras.