District Attorney Andrew Womble has declined to file charges against Pasquotank County, N.C., sheriff's deputies in the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. last month in Elizabeth City. His decision followed an inquiry by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, which presented its findings to the prosecutor.
At a press conference Tuesday morning, Womble said Brown's shooting by three deputies was "tragic" but "justified," because law enforcement officers "reasonably believed" they were in danger.
Brown, 42, was shot and killed in his car by deputies as they arrived to carry out warrants in drug-related charges in Elizabeth City on April 21. He was killed a day after a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder in George Floyd's killing.
Brown's family has called his death an "execution."
Womble described the drug-related charges that led to the warrants for Brown's arrest and showed still images from deputies' body cameras as he detailed what he said happened that day. Protesters could be heard chanting outside while Womble spoke.
The district attorney then showed on a large screen four body camera videos of the shooting, which unfolded within seconds. Officers are seen arriving at Brown's residence in the bed of a law enforcement vehicle, holding rifles or handguns. Brown is in his car outside his house, and deputies immediately pull their weapons and train them on Brown.
Brown puts his car in reverse and backs up, and deputies move on foot to surround it. Boxed in, Brown turns the wheel and puts the car in drive. He then drives forward in the direction of a deputy. The officers quickly open fire and strike Brown's vehicle with multiple shots.
Womble says his showing of the videos was "display" and not "release" of the footage, and that release of body camera footage will be done through the courts. Judge Jeffrey Foster blocked release of the bodycam footage, except to Brown's family, until the state completed its investigation.
However, a reporter who was at the press conference recorded a video as it played and shared it on Twitter.
Womble said law enforcement fired the first shot into the front windshield and then several others into the back of the vehicle as it drove away and toward other responding law enforcement officers. Fourteen shell casings were found at the scene.
A medical examiner found that Brown died from a bullet to the back of his head. Brown was also shot in the arm and had other abrasions on his body that appeared to be caused by shrapnel.
The video is likely to invite criticism about law enforcement methods and use of force.
Asked if officers might not have simply let Brown go and arrested him at another time, rather than shooting him, Womble said that "they simply couldn't let him go."
"Law enforcement officers are duty bound," he said, and delivering the warrant "was their job on that particular day."
"Mr. Brown's response to that was to flee," Womble said.
The district attorney said he believes Brown's aim was to flee, not to injure the officers – but that if he was going to attempt to flee, he had no choice but to drive at the officers. Womble said he believes Brown fled because he did not want officers to find drugs he had in his possession, though he acknowledged he was speculating as to Brown's intentions.
Asked by a reporter whether deputies might have violated the use-of-force policy by the sheriff's office on shooting into vehicles, Womble said that was a matter for the sheriff's office, and not part of his criminal negligence inquiry.
In a statement posted on his office's Facebook page, Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten II said the three deputies who fired their weapons will remain on the force but be "disciplined and retrained."
Wooten cited the failure of two deputies to turn on their body cameras and the tactical team's failure to have an emergency medical team nearby as cause for the discipline, though he did not say what form the discipline would take. He said the force will be retrained in tactical operations by "national experts."
Following the press conference, attorneys for Brown's family issued a statement calling for the court to release the full video, the State Bureau of Investigation's report, and for the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene.
"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," the statement said.
Members of Brown's family viewed about 20 minutes of body camera and dashcam footage last week. They said that the videos show deputies standing on a sidewalk firing multiple times at Brown and that deputies "ambushed" him as he sat in his car. They said Brown never posed a threat to the deputies, and there were no weapons found in the vehicle.
Brown's family members have pushed for Womble to be removed from the case, arguing he is too close to the county sheriff's office.
NPR's Sarah McCammon contributed reporting from Elizabeth City, N.C.