After deputies in North Carolina fatally shot a Black man last week, law enforcement offered promises of transparency. But few facts emerged – a void of information that raised suspicions and helped stoke national outrage, according to experts.
Andrew Brown Jr. was killed April 21 as Sheriff’s deputies tried to execute drug-related search and arrest warrants at his house in the town of Elizabeth City. Since then, little official comment has followed, despite pleas from Brown’s family and mounting legal pressure.
The officers’ names, bodycam footage, a timeline of events and a justification for the shooting are all among the details that have not been made public as Sheriff Tommy Wooten has repeatedly cited ongoing investigations as the reason for scant details.
It’s a “recipe for unnecessary acrimony and conflict,” said David Snyder, the Executive Director First Amendment Coalition. Snyder said the case is a part of a longstanding trend among law enforcement to be “secretive without good reason.”
Snyder criticized a North Carolina law that requires a court order for body cam footage to be released to the public — a law that allowed a judge on Wednesday to block the footage’s release to the media.
The lack of basic facts about the case provides an environment where “misinformation and conspiracy theories” can thrive and “raises suspicions that they are unduly trying to make secrets,” Snyder said.
The clearest picture of authorities’ account of the shooting came Wednesday as District Attorney Andrew Womble told a judge that a characterization made by one of the Brown family attorneys was incorrect.
April 23:North Carolina police promise transparency in Andrew Brown Jr. shooting, but no bodycam video yet
Womble said video shows that Brown’s car made “contact” with law enforcement twice before shots could be heard. He also argued that video should be kept from the public while state investigators pursue their probe.
Harry Daniels, an attorney for Brown’s family, objected to Womble citing video in court that had not been made public: “I heard statements being made: Well, (Brown) might have hit the deputies … well, show us the video,” he said.
Daniels said the family’s position remains the same: “An innocent man was gunned down.”
As the Brown family’s lawyers criticize local law enforcements’ handling of the investigation, protesters are still flooding the streets of Elizabeth City.
In the hours after Brown’s death, Daniels publicly pressured law enforcement to provide details, saying that the family was being forced to rely on speculation and eyewitness accounts to understand what happened.
Those accounts have shaped the public’s understanding of the case — more so then they might have if Brown had been killed by police years ago, according to Lauren Bonds, the legal director for the National Police Accountability Project.
“People are more likely to trust the account of a victim or a victim’s family than they have been in the past,” she said.
Historically, delays in providing information to the public have been seen as a part of a pattern of “police departments and agencies doing everything in their power to insulate their officers” from accountability, Bonds said. But increasingly, a lack of communication from law enforcement raises the public’s suspicion and allows advocates for victims of police violence to speak out.
In general, there are ways for police to inform the public about the details of an ongoing use of force case without compromising the investigation, according to Bonds. Police don’t need don’t need to present a full narrative to inform the public — body cam footage, data, video, audio and raw information can all help prevent misinformation.
While it’s not unusual for release of body cam footage to be delayed after a police shooting, bystanders’ cell phone videos are increasingly being used to document police brutality.
“We’ve become accustomed to being able to see the tape right away,” Snyder said.
Philip Stinson, a former police officer and current criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University, says the lack of details made public at this point isn’t necessarily a sign that police are stalling or attempting to cover up excessive force — it could be a sign of a robust investigation.
“Every case is different — this one doesn’t make any sense,” Stinson said. With video evidence, seven deputies on leave and widespread public attention, it’s likely the officers’ use of force is likely being closely scrutinized, he said.
Wooten, the top sheriff, has repeatedly cited ongoing investigations as the reason for scant details. “Although we’re unable to show the public what happened right now, the independent investigators are working to complete their investigation,” Wooten said in a written statement. “As soon as all of the important facts are given to me, I will act quickly to ensure accountability and I’ll be as transparent as I possibly can with the public.”
Wooten said he was disappointed that a judge did not authorize the release of the footage on Wednesday.
But in the wake of a year of protests against police brutality and in the days after the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, many people are demanding more transparency from police, John David, a strategic communications consultant, author and speaker, told USA Today.
“This just kind of sounds like the same stuff we’ve been hearing for years,” David said. Such assurances don’t “necessarily hold water any more” in America.
Contributing: The Associated Press