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Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on April 24, 2021, and updated April 25, 2021.
ELIZABETH CITY — On Saturday afternoon, the Pasquotank NAACP chapter called for the resignation of Sheriff Tommy Wooten II for a lack of transparency following the Wednesday morning killing of a Black man in Elizabeth City by deputies.
In a recorded video statement released early Saturday evening, Wooten said he will show the officers’ body cam footage to the immediate family of the slain man, Andrew Brown Jr. but will advocate for the release of the footage to the public only if the State Bureau of Investigation says it will not interfere with its inquiry.
Wooten said he wants the “immediate family” to view the footage “as soon as possible.”
Pasquotank officers shot and killed Brown on Wednesday morning while attempting to serve two arrest warrants and a search warrant. Wooten confirmed that sheriff’s deputies were wearing body cameras that were turned on.
“The family deserves to see it first,” Wooten said.
At a gathering at the Mount Lebanon AME Zion Church in Elizabeth City on Saturday afternoon, the Rev. William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach, called on Wooten to show the footage to the family and to release the footage to the public.
“The DA, the sheriff — they know what’s on the tape,” Barber said. “The family needs to know what’s on the tape. They need to know what happened to Andrew. They need to know when it happened. They need to know why it happened. Because all they know right now is he’s dead.”
Glenda Thomas, Brown’s aunt, and other family members met with Wooten on Friday. The Sheriff’s Office did not contact her Saturday about viewing the footage.
“He needs to call me,” she said. “He has my number.”
Chantel Cherry-Lassiter, an attorney with the family’s legal team, said Saturday evening that to her knowledge, no family members had spoken with Sheriff Wooten.
In Barber’s remarks, he also called for passage of a state law proposed in early April, prior to Brown’s shooting. S.B. 510 would replace the current requirement for a Superior Court judge to approve the release of police body camera and dashboard camera footage. It would instead create a 48-hour waiting period prior to the automatic release of such footage upon request unless expressly blocked by a judge.
“There’s no reason that the General Assembly in this state can’t pass that bill and open up these body cameras to public record,” Barber said. “There’s no reason. The only reason would be they, too, don’t want to know the truth.”
A key difference between this case and other prominent police shooting cases, such as those of Eric Garner and George Floyd, is that there is no known private footage of the officers opening fire on Brown, only whatever is captured on the deputies’ recordings.
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, was among those standing alongside Barber as he delivered his remarks Saturday.
Push for a public release
While Wooten has the legal authority to show the video to the family, the sheriff noted that he needs a court order to release the tapes to the public.
In a video statement released late Saturday afternoon, he said he would support the release of the tapes to the public and the media only if the SBI confirmed that it would not hinder its investigation.
A spokesperson for the SBI, Angie Grube, told Carolina Public Press on Saturday that releasing the video would not impede the investigation. On Friday, she said the agency has not directed any local officials in any way to oppose release of the video. The SBI issued press statements on Thursday and Friday that it has no authority over releasing the videos.
The Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said he contacted Gov. Roy Cooper and demanded that he make a statement. Cooper issued a statement that “the body camera footage should be made public as quickly as possible.”
“The state has spoken to ask for the tapes to be released,” Spearman said, “so I don’t understand why those who are in the jurisdictions will not release the tapes.”
Under state law, only a Superior Court judge can order the release of law enforcement videos to the public. Carolina Public Press, along with several other newsrooms, requested on Friday that the court release the body camera footage from sheriff’s deputies who shot Brown.
The City Council of Elizabeth City passed a motion Friday to request the videos from the sheriff, the district attorney and the SBI. If they do not respond, the City Council also plans to petition the court to release the videos.
Wooten told CPP on Saturday that, contingent on the SBI’s response, he will also petition the court for release of the footage. The move is a change from his prior position. On Friday, Wooten said he was waiting on District Attorney Andrew Womble and the continuing investigation.
Any findings from the SBI will be handed over to Womble, who would then decide whether to prosecute any officers involved.
The sheriff also announced a request to the N.C. Sheriff’s Association to appoint another sheriff’s department to conduct an independent “internal investigation” of Wooten’s department. This investigation will take place after the SBI completes its investigation, Wooten said.
The seven deputies currently on leave in association with Brown’s shooting will remain on leave until both investigations are complete, he said.
Wooten also said two deputies have indicated their intent to resign, and another has said he will retire. However, it was unclear whether any or all of these officers were among those placed on leave.
Activists rally to call for transparency
Protesters took to the streets beginning Wednesday for daily actions to call for accountability and transparency by the Sheriff’s Office.
On Saturday, Elizabeth City council member Gabriel Adkins led a group of approximately 50 protesters through the streets of Elizabeth City, blocking traffic and chanting, “Release the video!”
In the afternoon, the crowd made its way to the Mount Lebanon AME Zion Church, where community leaders and the family gathered. They were unable to enter the church due to capacity restrictions.
That night, more than 100 protesters and a caravan of cars inched down N.C. 344, one of the main thoroughfares heading out of the city.
Pasquotank NAACP President Keith Rivers, who earlier in the day called for Wooten’s resignation, said the events were necessary to ensure transparency, both in the Brown case and in the community moving forward.
“Nobody wants to be out here doing this. We’re not out here because we want to see bad things happen to anybody. We’re just out here because we want to see justice done,” he said. “We want closure. And we want to be able to have the confidence in our sheriff that things in the future will be done in transparency.”
News that Wooten would allow immediate family to view the footage did not change Rivers’ stance, though he said it was a “first step” in the right direction.
“You’re an elected official with an obligation to the people, and you still have not come out and spoken with the people,” Rivers said. “And that trust, that bond, is about credibility and your character. We have to be able to trust you to do the right thing from now forward.”
Protest organizers said their actions would continue beginning Monday morning at 7 a.m. outside the Sheriff’s Office. They plan to advocate for the family to view the tape and for the release to the general public as well, Kirk Rivers, organizer and brother of the local NAACP president, said.