With police releasing few details about what led to Brown’s death, many community members say it raises questions about transparency and accountability in a sheriff’s office that has long failed to engage with the Black community.
Community leaders and residents say 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, they say, has done little to build trust with Black residents and excludes Black activists from discussions around policies that affect the community such as the use of body cameras. The issue reflects a racial divide in this rural county of some 40,000 people that 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, Black police chief and a majority Black city council. The town has nearly 18,000 residents.
Activists and city officials say the sheriff’s office’s handling of Brown’s death has made Elizabeth City residents even more wary of county officials.
“The people of Elizabeth City are just deeply, deeply troubled by this,” said Kristie Puckett-Williams, manager of ACLU of North Carolina’s Campaign for Smart Justice and an activist in Elizabeth City. “There is a racial divide amongst the city and county and this has only widened the divide.”
Elizabeth City officials say their relationship with Pasquotank County officials is virtually nonexistent.
Councilman Michael Brooks said the city council and county board of commissioners should be having regularly scheduled joint meetings to discuss issues such as economic development, race relations — and policing and emergency situations such as the 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 appears to me that the city elected officials are the only ones holding the burden when (Brown’s death) was caused by county deputies,” Brooks told CNN. “That’s really sad and that shows you how strained the relationship is with the county commissioners and city council.”
The 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 killing 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 come from his family and their attorneys. The family announced earlier this week that an independent autopsy showed Brown was shot four times in the right arm and was shot in the head as he tried to drive away from sheriff’s deputies.
Keith Rivers, president of the Pasquotank County NAACP, and other civil rights leaders have called for Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten II to resign saying he has not been transparent about Brown’s death and has lost all trust and credibility.
“How can he instill and stop unrest in the community when he has failed to show any transparency or any level of accountability for himself to this community?” Rivers said. “How can he effectively carry out the duties of the sheriff with impartiality? The integrity is gone.”
But Wooten insists that he has been transparent and accountable in the investigation into Brown’s death.
On Thursday, Wooten released the identities of the seven deputies involved in Brown’s death. The sheriff said he was reinstating four of the deputies to active duty because they never fired their weapons. The other three will remain on administrative leave during the investigation into the shooting.
Brown’s family and the district attorney for the region offered different accounts earlier this week as to what led to the fatal shooting.
District Attorney Andrew Womble said officers fired when the car Brown was driving moved toward them. Brown’s family and attorneys, who had watched 20 seconds of video, said he was driving away to save his life from gunfire.
Wooten also said last week that he didn’t release the video because state law requires a judge to decide whether body camera footage can be made public. Wooten said he also wanted to make sure releasing the video wouldn’t 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 a rush to judgment and others want to pit people against each other in a way that can only hurt our county. My job is to ensure transparency and accountability, while also preserving the ability for the independent investigators to do their deliberate, painstaking, and vital work.”
Pasquotank County Board of Commission Chairman Lloyd Griffin supported Wooten’s handling of the body camera footage and investigation.
“Rushing the gathering of evidence and interviewing of witnesses would hurt any future legal case that might be brought in the wake of this tragedy,” Griffin said earlier this week.
A strained relationship
Rivers said the NAACP tried working with the county sheriff’s office between 2015 and 2016 when it requested that officers at both the county and local level be required to wear body cameras. Elizabeth City police rolled out body cameras in 2016 and invited the NAACP to help write the policies for their use to ensure the community had input, Rivers said. The sheriff’s office, however, did not immediately implement them, Rivers said. County records show the board of commissioners approved the purchase of 33 police body cameras 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 couldn’t be proven without body cameras, he said.
“The sheriff’s department has operated in the darkness for quite some time,” according to Rivers.
Holding the sheriff accountable
Even with body cameras in place now, state law requires a court order for the footage to be publicly released.
The Rev. William J. Barber said he is now lobbying for the state to change the law and make body camera videos public record.
Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and president of the Goldsboro, NC-based Repairers of the Breach, said the current statute is allowing the county to operate without any accountability 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 Department of Justice needs to launch a “pattern or practice” investigation into the sheriff’s office. Black people in Elizabeth City tell him they have long been targeted by county sheriff’s deputies and that a federal probe would be the best way to uncover any systemic racism, Rivers said.
“To get at racism, you have to investigate the patterns and practices,” Barber said. “Look at the type of arrests they have done, look at who is prosecuted in this county and who is not prosecuted. Look at the difference in the sentences, look at the ways in which people have been treated.”
Puckett-Williams said many Black residents feel betrayed by Wooten, a Republican, because he ran for sheriff in 2018 on a promise to ensure transparency and build a strong partnership between the community and law enforcement.
Puckett-Williams said the protests and frustration in Elizabeth City following Brown’s death prove that Wooten has not kept his word.
“If you’re not proximate to the community that you’re working in then you’re ineffective,” Puckett-Williams said. “He is not engaging with Black people who have a radical analysis or critique of the impact of his 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 I would be transparent and accountable in this matter. I have been.”
Living in fear
Some Black residents in Elizabeth City said Brown’s death has made them even more fearful to leave their homes.
Christian Gilyard said he lives down the street from where Brown was killed. He said as a Black man, the “thing that happened to him could have happened to me.” Gilyard wants to see the deputies who fatally shot Brown criminally charged.
“To grow up in an area where automatically as soon as you walk out of your door and the police stereotype you — you’re scared,” Gilyard told CNN. “A lot of people don’t know what that feels like. A lot of people have never experienced that.”
Meanwhile, as the family waits to view more footage, the community is becoming increasingly concerned that the sheriff’s office is attempting to cover up its involvement in Brown’s death, activists say. City officials worry the delay could lead to more protests.
“The transparency has been grotesquely lacking in this case,” Rev. Greg Drumwright, national organizer for Justice 4 the Next Generation, told CNN’s Kate Bolduan. “The community is tired of waiting and the family is also at 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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