A grave injustice in Elizabeth City
Published May 20, 2021
There are a lot of reasons for caring and thinking people to be deeply troubled by the events surrounding the killing of Andrew Brown, Jr. by Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputies. At least five big ones stand out.
First, before one even gets to the matter of the shooting itself, is the matter of why a huge cadre of heavily armed officers was dispatched to arrest a man on a drug charge. In a nation that is finally coming to grips with the counter-productiveness and futility of its disastrous, decades-long “war on drugs,” the question needs to be posed: what was Brown accused of that was so horrific that it became a matter of life and death to arrest him? And, indeed, should it have even been considered a serious crime? Had Brown been accused of a violent crime — murder, assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery — perhaps such massive armed brigade would have made more sense. But a drug offense? One has to wonder.
Second are the obvious and closely related issues of race and class. Simply put, it strains credulity to imagine that law enforcement officials would have approached the arrest of a wealthy, white suburbanite accused of a drug offense in the same way. And while Brown was clearly in the wrong in trying to flee from the arrest, it’s hard to imagine that the obvious fear and panic he experienced were not at least in part related to the unjust treatment he knew America’s justice system has so regularly meted out to Black people. The path that our hypothetical well-off suburbanite would have likely chosen — texting or calling his lawyer to meet him at the sheriff’s office where a quick release would have been arranged — was almost certainly not a viable option for Brown.
Third is the shabby treatment local officials have afforded to Brown’s family. As Yanqi Xu reported for Policy Watch yesterday:
"[Family attorney Chance] Lynch told Policy Watch that the DA’s office has not reached out to Brown’s family ahead of the press conference, going against the standard protocol. “What we’ve seen today has been a miscarriage of justice,” Lynch said. He said he and his co-counsel are demanding to see the unredacted footage, as well as the release of the SBI report which can only be authorized by a judicial official.
Fourth, of course, is the decision of Pasquotank County District Attorney Andrew Womble not to bring any charges at all against the officers who killed Brown. As Raleigh’s News & Observerrightfully explained in a fine editorial this morning:
"Shooting at a suspect in a fleeing car generally violates police practices, but Womble leaned on statutes that allow police to shoot when they feel threatened. The district attorney said Brown’s car brushed an officer and could have hit an officer in an unmarked car nearby. He was not troubled by the threat the officers created by firing at a fleeing car in a residential neighborhood at 8:30 in the morning. One bullet was found in a nearby house. In all, 14 shots were fired.
Womble acknowledged that Brown was fleeing, not targeting the officers. “I think Mr. Brown’s intention was to get away,” he said, “but when he did that, he put those deputies in danger.”
Asked why deputies did not let Brown flee and seek to arrest him later, Womble said their duty was to take him into custody. He said, “They simply couldn’t let him go.”
But apparently in Pasquotank County a district attorney with close ties to local police can simply let the officers go.
Kristie Puckett-Williams of the ACLU of North Carolina put it even more eloquently when, in a statement, she said:
Communities deserve justice and accountability, but history shows justice for people of color is rare in a system that was built upon slavery and has been modified over time to control and limit the lives of those who are not white.
And fifth is the obvious gaping loophole in North Carolina law that gives carte blanche to a local politician (the district attorney) in such matters. Because of the way state law is written, it appears that neither the state Attorney General nor the Governor can provide any real oversight or move to install a special prosecutor. Instead, Gov. Cooper has been reduced to issuing a public plea for the the FBI to investigate and for Republican legislators to strengthen state statutes to “increase transparency, confidence and accountability in the justice system.”
The bottom line: The whole situation surrounding the killing of Brown stinks and should not be swept further under the rug. While it may not be possible now to bring state criminal charges against the officers who killed him, all state and federal officials in a position to continue the investigation in order to bring about some measure of justice — either as a criminal or civil matter — should continue their work.