Elizabeth City Mayor Bettie J. Parker addresses protesters gathered outside City Hall on April 23, 2021. Protesters took to the streets to demand release of the body cam footage from the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. by Pasquotank sheriff's deputies on April 20, 2021. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press

ELIZABETH CITY — A judge has been asked to authorize the release of the body camera footage from Pasquotank County deputies who were present during Wednesday’s fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City.

Attorneys representing a coalition of news organizations, including Carolina Public Press, served the petition on the district attorney and law enforcement by email late Friday after discovering that the normal avenue for filing the petition, the Pasquotank County Clerk of Court’s Office, closed at 2:30 p.m. on Friday for reasons that are unclear. The judge has not said whether he will accept the filing.

Under North Carolina statute, law enforcement agencies cannot voluntarily release body cam footage. A judge has the sole authority to approve or reject petitions’ for its release. However, the agencies involved in a case can notify the judge that they support or oppose a petition to release the video.

The agencies involved also have sole discretion over whether or not to show the video to anyone whose image or voice is captured in the footage, or in cases like Brown’s, to family members. 

 “The law does allow a private viewing by the family of Mr. Brown, we are working with their attorney to arrange that,” said district attorney Andrew Womble and county attorney Michael Cox in a joint statement released Thursday night. 

Brown’s family arrived at the Pasquotank Sheriff’s Office on Friday afternoon expecting to view the body camera footage, said Zena Jackson, Brown’s cousin. They left not long after without seeing the footage, without knowing why they were not allowed to see it and without knowing much more about what led sheriff’s deputies to shoot Brown, according to his aunt, Glenda Thomas.

“Until I do get the information, I will be protesting daily,” Jackson said.

Later Friday afternoon, the city council of Elizabeth City met for an emergency meeting to request the release of the body camera footage. Four of the eight council members and the mayor were present and voted to direct city attorney William H. Morgan Jr. to request the footage be made public. 

Morgan left the meeting to deliver the request to the sheriff, the district attorney and the State Bureau of Investigation. The next step is to file a court action requesting the release of the videos, according to council member Gabriel Adkins

The city council announced an 11 a.m. press conference in front of city hall on Saturday to share any information they learned. 

Sheriff Wooten spoke with Carolina Public Press Friday afternoon and voiced no opposition to releasing the video, though he deferred to other agencies that might have concerns about the investigation being completed.

“I personally have no problem with the video being released,” Wooten said. “Right now, we’re waiting on the district attorney, waiting on the unfolding of the investigation.”

If the video was not released until the SBI has completed its investigation into the fatal shooting, “that would be advantageous for everybody,” Wooten said.

Sheriff’s Major Aaron Wallio echoed that sentiment. “We understand that it needs to be released,” Wallio said. “I think it’s the correct answer, and we’re willing for it to be released. I guess it’s just a question of what exactly is the proper timing and does it hinder the SBI investigation.”

In multiple press releases, the SBI has stated that release of the video is not in its purview. The SBI has not directed anyone to withhold the video, SBI spokesperson Angie Grube told CPP. 

Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted Friday evening, “Initial reports of the shooting in Elizabeth City and death of Andrew Brown Jr. this week are tragic and extremely concerning. The body camera footage should be made public as quickly as possible and the SBI should investigate thoroughly to ensure accountability.”

Wooten asked the SBI to investigate the shooting on Wednesday, and SBI agents were in Elizabeth City on Friday afternoon to collect the body cam footage. 

Attempted arrest

The Dare County Sheriff’s Office took out two warrants Tuesday for Brown’s arrest relating to alleged drug offenses last month. 

The warrants included one count of possession with intent to sell or deliver a schedule II narcotic, three grams of cocaine, and one count of keeping and maintaining a vehicle for keeping and selling a controlled substance on March 17, 2021.

The warrants also charged him with one count of possession with intent to sell or deliver a schedule I narcotic, three grams of methamphetamine, and one count of keeping and maintaining a vehicle for keeping and selling a controlled substance from a March 29, 2021 incident.

Sheriff Wooten said his deputies were attempting to arrest 42-year-old Brown at his Elizabeth City residence, as well as serve a search warrant, when the shooting occurred.

Wooten said his own officers were serving the warrants and fired on Brown, but Dare County officers were also present and securing the perimeter as part of a multijurisdictional Albemarle Drug Task Force operation. 

Additional agencies arrived on the scene following the shooting.

According to news media accounts from eyewitness interviews, Brown attempted to leave the scene in his vehicle, leaving deep tread marks in the mud as he pulled away.

Witnesses have said officers were positioned behind the vehicle as it pulled away in the opposite direction and several officers fired into the vehicle. Brown’s vehicle went a short distance and came to rest after striking a tree. Officers unsuccessfully attempted to resuscitate Brown.

The officers involved in the shooting have not been publicly identified. Several have been placed on administrative leave while the SBI investigates, Wooten said on Thursday. Several news media organizations reported late Friday that some of the officers have resigned or retired, but reports disagreed about how many.

State records show that Brown and Pasquotank County law enforcement were long familiar with one another. Brown has a long and ongoing history of convictions for drug dealing and was indicted on additional drug charges in late 2020. 

Between 2006 and 2008 he had multiple convictions for communicating threats and one for violating an order of protection. He had earlier convictions for assault, domestic trespass and wanton injury to person or property, in addition to multiple property and drug crimes.  In 2004, he was convicted of speeding to elude arrest. 

In addition to CPP, news organizations participating in the petition to release the body cam footage include The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City, WTKR-TV, WGNT-TV, WRAL-TV, The News & Observer of Raleigh, The Charlotte Observer, WBTV-TV, WECT-TV, WITN-TV, WUNC-FM, The Daily Tar Heel, WAVY-TV, WVBT-TV, CNN, WTVD, the Associated Press, the Washington Post and Charter.

Protest organizer Kirk Rivers speaks to the crowd gathered in front of the Camden Bridge in Elizabeth City on April 23, 2021. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press.

Three nights of protests, more expected

Following the murder conviction of a former Minneapolis police officer in the death of North Carolina native George Floyd, which has drawn protests nationwide since last summer, the shooting of yet another Black man by law enforcement is again drawing national media attention and protests.

Protests in Elizabeth City started Wednesday night and continued Thursday and Friday. Protesters blocked city streets, disrupting businesses and traffic downtown. 

On Friday night, organizer Kirk Rivers led protesters to block the Camden bridge, the passageway over the Pasquotank River to the coast on Highway 158. 

“We’re not going to stop because we still have not received the report,” Rivers said, standing in the middle of the intersection. 

“We’re still not going to stop marching. We’re still not going to stop protesting. We’re still not going to stop boycotting.We’re still not going to stop supporting our businesses. We’re still not going to stop supporting each other, because we have a mission. We have a movement to make sure that accountability is held.” 

Elizabeth City Police Department officers closed off the streets and kept about a block of distance on all sides. The marchers did not have a planned route. 

Wooten said several law enforcement agencies, including from the Pitt and Beaufort county sheriffs’ offices, the Rocky Mount and Greenville police departments and the State Highway Patrol, came to keep county residents safe and that the local police department was coordinating “civil unrest issues.” They did not bring tactical gear, Wooten said. 

During the time of the march, Wooten met with Black church leaders and streamed it live on Facebook, earning criticism from some protesters who asked why neither group was in the streets with them. 

Only the Elizabeth City police were seen at the protest, maintaining the perimeter of the gathering.

Editor’s note: Kate Martin and Frank Taylor also contributed to this report. 

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Jordan Wilkie is a former Report for America corps member and former reporter at Carolina Public Press. To reach the newsroom, email us at news@carolinapublicpress.org.

Laura Lee is the former news editor at Carolina Public Press.