District attorney says police shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. "was justified"

District Attorney Andrew Womble announced Tuesday that North Carolina sheriff's deputies will not face charges for the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr., a 42-year-old Black man whose death sparked protests last month. Womble said they were justified in opening fire as Brown drove towards officers who were attempted to serve a search warrant. Watch a portion of his news conference.

Video Transcript

ANDREW WOMBLE: The deputies involved in a shooting incident have no prior excessive force complaints. The law is clear and long established. The United States Supreme Court, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the North Carolina Appellate Courts have all held that where officers are attempting to make an arrest, deadly force may be used if it appears to be reasonably necessary to, first, protect against deadly force that the arrestee is using to resist arrest or, two, to take into custody a person who presents an imminent threat of death or serious injury to others unless apprehended immediately. The North Carolina General Assembly has codified this case law in our general statutes at NCGS 15A-401d2, which I have attached to the press package.

The United States Supreme Court has cautioned, prosecutors may not employ the 2020 vision of hindsight but must make allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgment in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving. The law authorizes an officer to take preemptive action and use deadly force to prevent death or serious injury to himself or herself, provided that the threat assessment is reasonably made. Whenever officers use deadly force to defend themselves or to stop a dangerous fleeing felon, the determination of whether they properly use that force focuses on whether the totality of the circumstances as they appeared to the officers at the time of the killing were sufficient to create a belief in a reasonable person standing in their shoes that such force was necessary.

In short, assessing the reasonableness of the shooting requires examining the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene. Consequently, my focus was on the relevant set of facts a reasonable officer in the deputy's position would have experienced. When weighing the degree of force used, a prosecutor must pay careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. Using these parameters, I find that the facts of this case clearly illustrate the officers who use deadly force on Andrew Brown Jr. did so reasonably and only when a violent felon used a deadly weapon to place their lives in danger.

First, when assessing the severity of the crime at issue, Andrew Brown Jr. was being served with two felony arrest warrants and a search warrant. The law enforcement officers were duty-bound to stand their ground, carry through on the performance of their duties, and take Andrew Brown into custody. They could not simply let him go as has been suggested. Additionally, Brown engaged in dangerous felony level misconduct as he attempted to flee from law enforcement officers. The decision to flee, which Brown made on his own, quickly escalated the situation from a show of force to an employment of force. Brown's precise speed in attempting to flee and striking Deputy Lunsford is uncertain. But that he drove recklessly and endangered the officers is not uncertain. Therefore, I find that Brown's actions and conduct were indeed dangerous by the time of the shooting.

Second, Brown was actively resisting arrest and attempting to evade arrest by flight before, during, and after the shooting. All officers had been briefed on Brown's previous interaction with law enforcement, including his propensity to resist and barricade himself. Briefings also inform these officers of Brown's prior criminal history and the fact that he has obtained the habitual felon stats. Brown acted consistent with law enforcement intelligence and actively resisted arrest and attempted to flee.

Third, and most importantly, Brown posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers and others. Mr. Brown's conduct did not merely risk injuring officers by the time of the shooting. Brown had made two aggressing driving moves, which caused his vehicle to contact Deputy Lunsford on both occasions. When the officers approached Brown with their guns drawn, his response was to maneuver his car and flee. Brown was undeterred by the officers yelling for him to stop, show me your hands, or about Deputy Lunsford attempting to open the driver's door. Even after backing into a corner with no escape but to maneuver his vehicle directly at the officers, Brown continued the felonious assault by using his vehicle as a deadly weapon and made contact a second time with Deputy Lunsford. Law enforcement officers, particularly Deputy Lunsford, were on foot and directly in the path of the vehicle being operated by Brown.

Lieutenant Judd was located on the corner of Roanoke Avenue and Perry in a white unmarked Crown Victoria. And Dare County officers Sergeant Ruth and Investigator Johnson were operating unmarked vehicles in the area to assist. All of these officers were potentially at risk from Brown's operation of the vehicle. Brown threatened the life and safety of the officers on the scene and any possible civilian bystanders, given a reasonable officer a compelling reason to end the encounter.

The law does not require officers in a tense and dangerous situation to wait until the moment a suspect uses a deadly weapon to act to stop the suspect. The shooting of Brown was justified to prevent potential harm to those living near where the incident occurred, as well as other pedestrians, support deputies, and the deputies who were in front of Mr. Brown. Law enforcement officers are required to instantaneously evaluate and employ force against possible criminal suspects to thwart apparent dangers to citizens and themselves. Officers must perceive, evaluate, decide, and then act often in a matter of seconds. The deputies in this case perceived a threat and immediately fired their weapon to neutralize the threat.

The perceived danger to the officer must only be apparent, not actual, in order to justify the use of deadly force. Apparent danger is such that it would cause a reasonable person to believe that he or others were in danger of death or great bodily harm. Although, there is evidence of actual danger to the officers, under the law, there was also apparent danger.

From the evidence that reasonably appeared to the deputies, there was a sufficient basis for self-defense and defense of others. The facts in this case demonstrate the presence of apparent danger to the officers. And officer may exercise such force if he believes it to be necessary and has reasonable grounds for such belief. An officer acting in self-defense is presumed to have acted in good faith.

Federal courts have held that the Constitution simply does not require police to gamble with their lives in the face of a serious threat of harm. As the United States Supreme Court has observed, the calculus of reasonableness must allow for the fact that law enforcement officers are often forced to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.

From a review of the body camera video from the scene, there is evidence that multiple shots were fired in rapid succession by three deputies. There is no evidence that the number of shots fired by the deputies was excessive. But even if there are an excessive number of shots, the question is whether the perceived threat has been neutralized for the safety of law enforcement officers present. In this case, the deputies use the amount of force deemed reasonably appropriate by them to neutralize a perceived threat.

Based upon my review of the facts of this case, I have determined that the shooting of Andrew Brown on April 21, 2021 was justified to protect the safety and lives of the deputies on the scene. The deputies who fired the fatal shots perceived an actual and apparent threat, evaluated the situation in seconds, decided, and acted. The deputies' actions appear reasonable under all the circumstances of the case. The deputies face both actual danger and apparent danger as perceived by them on the scene. This apparent threat was reinforced by Brown's dangerous and felonious use of a deadly weapon.

As tragic as this incident is with the loss of life, the deputies on scene were nonetheless justified in defending themselves from death or great bodily injury. There is insufficient evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to show that any of the deputies acted in a manner that was inconsistent with their perception of an apparent threat. In fact, my review of the incident indicates there is no evidence that the deputies who fired the fatal shots acted in any manner that is inconsistent with the threat they perceived and certainly no evidence that the deputies acted in any way contrary to or in violation of North Carolina law.

I appreciate the investigation by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations District Field Office. I have shared this conclusion with Sheriff Tommy Wooten and Special Agent in charge Masha Rogers that no officer will be criminally charged. The officers' actions were consistent with their training and fully supported under the law in protecting their lives and this community.