ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (WAVY) — A judge has ordered a delay on the public release of bodycam footage in the case of Andrew Brown Jr., the man shot and killed by deputies last Wednesday in Elizabeth City, denying a request from the media to make the video immediately available to the public.
“The release at this time would create a serious threat to the fair, impartial and orderly administration of justice,” said Judge Jeffrey Foster, a visiting judge from Pitt County.
Foster said the video won’t be released for a minimum of 30 days (or a maximum of 45) as authorities investigate.
WAVY-TV 10 and more than 20 other local and national media outlets, including CNN, USA Today and the New York Times, petitioned for release of the video. But Foster’s ruling said that the media members did not have standing to ask for the release of the video.
“Essentially what the judge said was we didn’t even have the right to ask [for the release of the video]. That’s where we think he is incorrect in the reading of the statute,” said Raleigh attorney Amanda Martin, who along with Michael Tadych represented the media members.
Despite his ruling to block release of the video to the media for at least a month, Foster said it would “advance a compelling public interest.”
The sheriff’s department has six video files of what happened to Brown when he was shot dead. Five of them come from four deputies’ body cameras, and another file comes from a police cruiser’s dash cam.
However, all footage from multiple body cameras will be made available to be viewed by Brown’s immediate family (with redactions allowed) within 10 days. Brown’s family has seen one 20-second clip from one bodycam so far.
“I would consider it somewhat of a partial victory for the family,” said Brown family attorney Wayne Kendall.
Once the 30 to 45-day window is reached, the judge will determine if the family can obtain a copy of the video, which they could then publicly disseminate.
The judge also ordered all faces of officers involved in the incident to be blurred before footage is released.
The decision came after Pasquotank District Attorney Andrew Womble requested a 30-day delay. Brown was killed by law enforcement last week while they conducted a search warrant.
The judge watched five videos from four body cameras. Brown’s family only saw a 20-second clip from one bodycam on Monday.
In court Wednesday, Womble claimed video shows Brown hitting officers with his car twice before the shooting started, backing up and going forward, and that the vehicle wasn’t stationary when the shooting started. That’s in contradiction with the Brown family’s lawyers.
“As it backs up, it does make contact with law enforcement officers,” he said, adding that the car stops again. “The next movement of the car is forward. It is in the direction of law enforcement and makes contact with law enforcement. It is then and only then that you hear shots.”
No deputies suffered any notable injuries, per the sheriff.
An independent autopsy released Tuesday by Brown’s family found Brown was shot in the back of the head by a deputy. His family and their attorneys have called his death an “execution.”
Brown’s 92-year-old grandmother wants to see the rest of the footage.
“Yes I would,” Brown’s grandmother Lydia Brown said. “Everybody would know what happened. Right now nobody knows what happened.”
While in court, Womble argued that the video of the shooting should be kept from the public for at least that 30 day-span so authorities can conduct their investigation.
“You can’t swing a skunk in front of a group of people and tell them not to smell it,” Womble said.
However, County Attorney Michael Cox, who’s representing the sheriff’s office, argued for the video’s release, saying it won’t impede the investigation. An attorney for WAVY and other media organizations also argued for an immediate release.
It’s notable that the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, which is leading the investigation, and local authorities have said releasing the footage wouldn’t hinder their probe.
“As far as any relevant video, we defer to the local authorities and the courts to make that determination as guided by State law,” said SBI Director Robert L. Schurmeier. “The SBI supports transparency to the greatest extent possible, as we think this serves the interests of the family, the local community, and North Carolina as a whole.”
The delay on the video release was also a disappointment for Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten.
Following the judge’s decision, Wooten issued a statement saying he wanted the body camera footage to be released to the public as soon as possible.
“Obviously, I’ll respect the judge’s ruling,” said Wooten. “Although we’re unable to show the public what happened right now, the independent investigators are working to complete their investigation.
Wooten has said he will act quickly to “ensure accountability” and be transparent as he possibly can to the public once he has all the important facts.
Due to the hearing, the Pasquotank County courthouse was closed for the remainder of the day Wednesday.
The family and their attorneys released a statement Wednesday after the judge’s ruling.
“We are deeply disappointed by the judge’s decision to not make body camera footage from the involved officers available to be viewed by the public. In this modern civil rights crisis where we see Black people killed by the police everywhere we look, video evidence is the key to discerning the truth and getting well-deserved justice for victims of senseless murders. Just look at the murder of George Floyd – if the world had not seen that clear and disturbing footage, there might not have even been an ounce of accountability for those officers. We refuse to be discouraged and vow to keep the pressure on these agencies until we get to the truth. We will not stop saying his name. Andrew Brown Jr.”
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper continues to push for the video to be released immediately. During a coronavirus media briefing Wednesday, he said public trust depends on it.
“I believe in as much transparency as possible and I believe that this video should be released as quickly as possible,” Cooper said.
The FBI has since opened a federal civil rights investigation into the case, and Cooper is pushing for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
“Our task force on racial equity in the criminal justice system recommended that in police shootings, a special prosecutor be appointed and I believe that’s good just in general for that to happen,” Cooper said.
G. K. Butterfield, who represents Elizabeth City in Congress, released this statement:
“I’m disappointed that Judge Jeff Foster declined to immediately release the video footage of the police shooting of Andrew Brown, Jr. This footage is a public record and there does not appear to be legal justification for withholding it from the public,” Butterfield said. “Police shootings in America are now an epidemic. The public is losing confidence in our law enforcement and criminal justice system. That’s why Governor Cooper, Attorney General Josh Stein, and the Pasquotank County Sheriff have all called for immediate release of the video footage. Further, the State Bureau of Investigation does not object to its release. I call on Judge Foster to reconsider his decision to withhold this important information from the public. By withholding the video from public inspection while the investigation is ongoing only leads to suspicion and further erosion of the public’s confidence in our justice system.”
The attorneys representing the media that is petitioning for the body camera footage’s release also released a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“We are disappointed in today’s outcome. If the media don’t have standing to petition the court for release of law enforcement video, the general public does not either. We believe that is legally incorrect. We will review the judge’s written order when we receive it and decide at that point how best to appeal it immediately.”
BELOW: View Foster’s full ruling.