ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (WAVY) — Pasquotank County District Attorney Andrew Womble said the law enforcement killing of Andrew Brown Jr. last month was “justified” as he shared the results of an independent investigation by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation on Tuesday.
Womble said the three Pasquotank County Sheriff’s deputies that fired their weapons, Investigator Daniel Meads, Deputy Robert Morgan and Cpl. Aaron Lewellyn, won’t face charges.
“While tragic, the shooting of Mr. Brown was justified due to his actions,” Womble said.
The three deputies that fired their weapons at Brown will keep their jobs, however, Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten II said in a video Tuesday afternoon that they will be retrained and disciplined.
Wooten said two deputies didn’t turn on their body cameras, which he said was “unacceptable.” He also said they’ll also be disciplined for not having emergency medical services on standby.
“This was a terrible and tragic outcome,” Wooten said about the shooting. “We can do better.”
Brown was shot and killed by deputies on April 21 while he was in a car on Perry Street in Elizabeth City. Deputies and other law enforcement were attempting to serve a drug-related search and arrest warrant at the time.
BELOW: Watch the full bodycam footage shown Tuesday (muted due to obscene language)
Womble explains justification
Womble said that the key to determining whether the shooting was justified was figuring out whether there was a real or perceived threat to the lives of the deputies involved.
Body camera video of the incident, which was shown to the public for the first time on Tuesday, shows Brown turn his vehicle to try to leave the area after deputies arrived at his home with guns drawn to try to take him into custody.
Two deputies were in the general area of the direction Brown was heading, and Womble said Brown’s actions put deputies in danger. Womble said one deputy was in the “direct path” of Brown’s vehicle.
Womble also said that Brown’s driving was “aggressive” and one deputy was pulled by Brown’s car when he tried to open Brown’s door.
“They were afraid of being run over, or they were afraid of their fellow officers being run over,” Womble said.
Deputies had positioned themselves in front of and behind Brown’s vehicle, which was in park before Brown tried to drive away. No deputies were injured in the incident, officials have said.
Womble said the first shot at Brown’s vehicle went through the front windshield after Brown drove forward. Officers then continued to open fire as he drove away, with one bullet fatally striking Brown in the back of the head. Womble said the investigation found that bullet ricocheted off a surface in the car before splintering into three pieces when it struck Brown’s skull.
In total 14 shots were fired in a matter of four seconds.
When asked why deputies would continue shooting as Brown drove away, he said all shots are justified once the initial threat or perceived threat is apparent.
“Did you see the officers surrounding the vehicle?” Womble questioned reporters. “There was no escape, but at the officers. You’re not allowed to drive over police officers.”
Womble said that due to the severity of the charges against Brown, “they could not simply let him go, as has been suggested … Brown posed an immediate threat to the safety of officers and others.”
Womble continued to point to the fact that state law only requires deputies to have a “perception of an apparent threat” to use deadly force. He said Brown was a deadly threat through the general use of his car. No weapons were found on Brown, and Brown wasn’t known to carry weapons, Womble said.
North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation response
The NC SBI said even though it conducted the investigation, it “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.”
That decision is left up to the district attorney.
“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 NC SBI said in a statement.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper released a statement Tuesday evening about the shooting.
“Federal officials should continue to thoroughly investigate the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City. Public confidence would have been better served with a special prosecutor and by quickly making public the incident footage. Our state should pass specific laws to increase transparency, confidence and accountability in the justice system.”
Brown’s family responds
Brown’s family members, who last week were able to view additional footage from the incident, have called the shooting an “execution.”
The family released a statement on Tuesday after Womble’s announcement, saying that calling the shooting justified was “both an insult and a slap in the face.”
“Andrew Brown Jr., his grieving family, and this community deserve answers,” the statement read. “And they received anything but from D.A. Womble’s attempt to whitewash this 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. 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. And the bottom line is that Andrew was killed by a shot to the back of the head. Interestingly, none of these issues were appropriately addressed in today’s press conference.”
During and after the announcement from Womble, protesters outside also showed their disappointment, WAVY’s Chris Horne reports. Protesters have demonstrated peacefully since Brown was killed by law enforcement.
The county announced Tuesday morning that all downtown county offices closed at 10 a.m. prior to Womble’s announcement.
Brown’s supporters were already chanting and yelling “you committed homicide” up at the second-floor windows as Womble continued his press conference.
“Why can’t we see the [entire] tape? Who did the kill shot?” asked Marie France, who identified herself as Brown’s cousin.
Supporter Daniel Bowser said a full public disclosure of the video from four body cameras and one dashcam would ease tensions.
“I think if that comes about, the city can kind of breathe again. We know the truth,” Bowser said.
Womble included portions of the video in his press conference.
“It looks like to me that Mr. Brown was avoiding getting shot. Nobody wants to get shot and killed,” said a local pastor, who would identify himself only as “a voice in the wilderness.”
Kirk Rivers, whose brother Keith is the head of the local NAACP, said the past 27 days of protests have had an effect, but methods will change. He would not get any more specific.
“It won’t be the same protests coming forward,” Rivers said.
Another protest was in the works for Tuesday evening, and Rivers said that his message remains one of non-violence.
The NC SBI said in its statement that it would not release a report, something the family said would “help shed some much needed daylight on this case and bring a small measure of justice to this family and this community. Because we certainly got neither transparency nor justice today. We request that the Federal Department of Justice intervene immediately.”
However, Wooten, the sheriff, said he would again petition the Superior Court for the release of the unredacted body camera footage to Brown’s family and the public. He filed the petition in court Tuesday afternoon, according to court documents.
“This should have not happened this way at all … I continue to pray for [the Brown family] and hope they find peace,” he said, referring to Brown’s family.
Seven deputies were initially put on administrative leave. Four later returned to work because it was “obvious” they didn’t fire their weapons during the shooting, Wooten said about a week after the shooting.
In the video released by the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office Tuesday, Wooten explained his office’s internal investigation into the shooting, which was separate from the NC SBI’s probe.
He said he asked for outside investigators to assist with the internal investigation, including four from other localities. His investigators re-interviewed the deputies involved.
The sheriff’s office also hired an outside tactical and use of force expert with more than 30 years of service to assist. That expert also has 2,000-plus use of force reviews, Wooten said. They reviewed the four outside investigators’ work, body camera footage, the interviews with the deputies involved, the sheriff’s office’s policies, evidence and other cases for use of force.
After reviewing all of that information, Wooten said the three deputies who fired shots at Brown will keep their jobs but will be disciplined and retrained.
He said while the district attorney concluded no criminal law has been broken, he determined there were issues with the deputies not following department policy.
Wooten said there were examples of how deputies in the shooting could have done better: two deputies didn’t activate their body cameras and EMS wasn’t on standby near the scene.
The risk threat assessment for the arrest and search warrant was discussed by the deputies on the team before the warrant was served, however, the threat assessment view should be standardized and put into writing every time, Wooten explained.
He said they will require that component for every future situation.
Moving forward, the office’s tactical team will be reconfigured and retrained. Members on that team already get 80 hours of training, but will now receive more.
“We’ve already spoken to national experts about how to implement best practices for our team,” he said.
“Just because we’re a small agency doesn’t mean we can’t have the best training there is,” he said.
Wooten will also release parts of the internal investigation and the independent expert’s preliminary report as soon as he’s legally able, he said.