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Andrew Brown Jr. shooting exposes disconnect between majority rural Black city and the county

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With police disclosing few details about what led to Brown’s death, many community members say he raises issues about transparency and accountability in a sheriff’s office that has long since not interacted with the black community.

Community leaders and residents say that while they maintain a strong relationship with the Elizabeth City Police Department, their relationship with the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office is strained. The agency is said to have done little to build trust with black residents and excludes black activists from discussions about policies that affect the community, such as the use of body cameras. The number reflects a racial divide in this rural county of about 40,000 people, which is 54% white and 36% black with a white sheriff, White County attorney and a predominantly white board of commissioners. Elizabeth City, however, is 50% black and 37% white with a black mayor, a black police chief and a black majority city council. The city has about 18,000 inhabitants.

Activists and city officials say the handling of Brown’s death sheriff’s office has made Elizabeth City residents even more suspicious of county officials.

Protesters take to the streets to protest the Brown Jr. shooting in Elizabeth City.

“The people of Elizabeth City are deeply, deeply concerned about this,” said Kristie Puckett-Williams, ACLU manager of the North Carolina Intelligent Justice Campaign and activist in Elizabeth City. “There is a racial divide between the city and the county and that has only widened the division.”

Elizabeth City officials say her relationship with Pasquotank County officials is virtually non-existent.

Councilman Michael Brooks said the city council and county board of commissioners should have joint meetings scheduled regularly to discuss issues such as economic development, racial relations and police and emergency situations such as unrest over Brown’s death. .

Instead, Brooks said the council has had little communication with the county and city officials have been forced to speak publicly about the incident to calm protesters and community members.

“It seems to me that the city’s elected officials are the only ones holding the charge when (Brown’s death) was caused by county deputies,” Brooks told CNN. “That’s really sad and that shows you the strain of the relationship with the county commissioners and the city council.”

Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office could not be reached for comment.

Pasquotank County Commissioner Barry Overman declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Brown’s murder, as well as the relationship between county officials and the black community due to the ongoing investigation.

Much of the information about Brown’s death has been from his family and his lawyers. The family announced earlier this week that an independent autopsy showed Brown was shot four times in the right arm and shot in the head while trying to get away from the sheriff’s deputies.

Andrew Brown Jr.'s family lawyers Wayne Kendall left and Ben Crump held a press conference on April 27, 2021 in front of the Pasquotank County Public Safety Building in Elizabeth City .

Keith Rivers, president of the Pasquotank County NAACP, and other civil rights leaders have called for the resignation of Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten II, saying he has not been transparent about Brown’s death and has lost all confidence. and credibility.

“How can you instill and stop unease in the community when it has not demonstrated any transparency or level of accountability to that community?” Rivers said. “How can he effectively perform the sheriff’s duties impartially? Integrity is gone.”

But Wooten insists he has been transparent and accountable in the investigation into Brown’s death.

Thursday, Wooten made known the identities of the seven deputies involved in Brown’s death. The sheriff said he was restoring four of the deputies to active duty because they never fired their weapons. The other three will remain on administrative leave during the shooting investigation.

Brown’s family and the district attorney for the region offered different accounts earlier this week about what led to the deadly shooting.

District Attorney Andrew Womble said officers fired when the car Brown was driving moved toward them. Brown’s family and lawyers, who had seen 20 seconds of video, said he was moving away to save his life from the shootings.

Wooten also said last week that he did not release the video because state law requires a judge to decide whether body camera images can be made public. Wooten said he also wanted to make sure posting the video did not interfere with the investigation.

“Our county is united behind the importance of doing a careful, serious and impartial review of everything that happened,” Wooten said in a statement Thursday. “Some people want to rush to court and others want to confront people in a way that can only harm our county. My job is to ensure transparency and accountability, while preserving the capacity of the people. independent researchers to do what they want, meticulous and vital work “.

Lloyd Griffin, chairman of the Pasquotank County Committee Committee, supported Wooten’s manipulation and investigation of the body’s cameras.

“Rushed into gathering evidence and witness interviews would harm any future court case that could arise in the wake of this tragedy,” Griffin said earlier this week.

A tense relationship

Rivers said the NAACP tried to work with the county sheriff’s office between 2015 and 2016, when it requested that both county and local officers be required to carry body cameras. Elizabeth City police released body cameras in 2016 and invited the NAACP to help draft the policies for its use to ensure the community had contributions, Rivers said.
However, the sheriff’s office did not immediately implement them, Rivers said. County records shows that the board of commissioners approved the purchase of 33 cameras from the police force in September 2020. Rivers said the NAACP and other community members were not included in the implementation process.

The NAACP had received complaints from black residents about excessive use of force by sheriff’s deputies, but the allegations could not be proven without body cameras, he said.

“The sheriff’s department has been operating in the dark for quite some time,” according to Rivers.

Demand accounts from the sheriff

Even with the body cameras installed now, state law requires a court order for the images to be posted.

The Rev. William J. Barber said he is now pushing for the state to change the law and make videos of body cameras public.

Barber, co-chair of the Poor Campaign and president of the Goldsboro, NC-based Rape Repairers, said the current statute allows the county to function without any responsibility for Brown’s death.

Rivers and other civil rights leaders are urging the state attorney general to take over the case or appoint a special prosecutor. They also say the Justice Department should launch a “pattern or practice” investigation into the sheriff’s office. Blacks in the city of Elizabeth tell him they have been targeted by county sheriff’s deputies and that a federal investigation would be the best way to uncover any systemic racism, Rivers said.

“To address racism, you have to investigate patterns and practices,” Barber said. “Look at the kind of arrests they’ve made, look at who’s being prosecuted in this county and who’s not being prosecuted. Look at the difference in sentences, look at the ways people have been treated.”

Puckett-Williams said many black residents feel betrayed by Wooten, a Republican, because he presented himself at the post as sheriff in 2018 with the promise of ensuring transparency and build a strong partnership between the community and law enforcement.

Puckett-Williams said the protests and frustration in Elizabeth City after Brown’s death show Wooten has not kept his word.

“If you’re not close to the community where you’re working, you won’t be effective,” Puckett-Williams said. “It is not related to black people having a radical analysis or critique of the impact of their policies and procedures on this community.”

In his statement Thursday, Wooten defended his handling of the case saying “I promised the citizens of this county that I would be transparent and accountable in this matter. I have been.”

Live in fear

Some black residents in Elizabeth City said Brown’s death has made them even more afraid to leave their homes.

Christian Gilyard said he lives on the street from where Brown died. He said he was a black man, “what happened to me could have happened to me.” Gilyard wants to see the deputies who fatally shot Brown criminally accused.

“To grow up in an area where automatically as soon as you walk out the door and the police stereotype you, you’re scared,” Gilyard told CNN. “A lot of people don’t know how it feels. A lot of people have never experienced it.”

Meanwhile, as the family waits to see more images, the community is increasingly concerned that the sheriff’s office is trying to cover up its involvement in Brown’s death, activists say. City officials are concerned that the delay could spark more protests.

“Transparency has been grotesquely lacking in this case,” Rev. Greg Drumwright, national organizer of Justice 4 the Next Generation, told CNN’s Kate Bolduan. “The community is fed up with waiting and the family is also in a place where they are just fed up with the lack of transparency.”

CNN’s Priya Krishnakumar, Jamiel Lynch, Emma Tucker, Madeline Holcombe and Brian Todd contributed to this report.

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