The arrest, conviction and sentencing of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd was supposed to signal a new era of police being held accountable for the use of excessive force.
But that signal may not have made it to North Carolina. In two recent cases North Carolina district attorneys have declined to bring charges against officers involved in fatal shootings under questionable circumstances. Both cases were also marked by the withholding from the public of a key tool for assessing officers’ actions – body camera videos.
The more publicized of the two cases was the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City. Pasquotank County Sheriff’s deputies serving a drug-related warrant at Brown’s home on April 21 shot him from behind as he was trying to flee in his car.
Pasquotank County District Attorney Andrew Womble rejected a request from Gov. Roy Cooper that a special prosecutor handle the case. After a review, Womble declined to charge the officers, citing the all-purpose excuse that they feared for their safety even though Brown, 42, was trying to get away. Police video of the shooting was withheld from the public, though Womble showed selected clips to reporters when he announced his decision.
In the second case, a district attorney cleared two Mooresville police officers who responded to a 911 call about a suicidal man around 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 2, 2020. The officers shot Christopher Craven, 38, at least 15 times with high-powered rifles, with some bullets entering Craven’s home with his children inside.
The officers said Craven, who was said to be armed in the 911 call placed by his daughter, appeared to reach for a gun and a gun was found about four feet away from his body. Craven’s family members and his lawyer think Craven, who was wearing a holster, placed the gun on a step as he walked from his porch and approached the officers, who were shouting at him to get on the ground.
The Brown and Craven cases point to two needed changes that would increase police accountability when it comes to use of deadly force.
First, the state law limiting release of police videos should be revised to make the video a public record unless the police can convince a judge of a compelling reason to withhold them. Eleven months after the Craven shooting, the videos have still not been released to the public.
Second, the legal review of fatal police shootings should be handled by the state attorney general, not local district attorneys who, particularly in smaller communities, may have close relationships with police.
In the Brown case, District Attorney Womble’s office is located in the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s building. In the Craven case, Iredell County District Attorney Sarah Kirkman recused herself after a Facebook photo showed her wearing a “Back the Blue” T-shirt while posing at an event with a group that included the officers who shot Craven. Kirkman asked Andy Gregson, the district attorney from nearby Randolph County, to handle the case as a special prosecutor.
Gregson, a former attorney for the High Point Police, cleared the officers. He said both officers saw Craven “reach into his waistband with his right hand and pull out a pistol.” But Alex Heroy, the Craven family’s attorney who has viewed the videos, said, “To us, it looks like he’s complying with their orders. I never see a gun pulled out.”
Heroy said the Craven family will likely pursue a civil case against Mooresville police. The FBI is reviewing whether Brown’s civil rights were violated. But the district attorneys’ decisions ended the possibility of any criminal charges against the officers in the Craven and Brown cases.
State Attorney General Josh Stein said in a statement that changes are needed. “Our criminal justice system needs more transparency and accountability. That is why I have called for a universal bodycam requirement and for the footage to be a public record – so the public can view an incident and have more trust in prosecutors’ decisions.
“I also believe we need to prioritize recruiting and training officers who will approach their jobs as a guardian, not a warrior.”
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com