After MPs from North Carolina killed a black man last week, law enforcement vowed to be transparent. But few facts have emerged – an information vacuum that has raised suspicion and helped stoke national outrage, experts say.
Andrew Brown Jr. was killed on April 21 as sheriff’s deputies attempted to execute drug-related search and arrest warrants at his home in the town of Elizabeth City. Little official comment has followed since, despite appeals from Brown’s family and growing legal pressure.
The names of the officers, body camera footage, a timeline of events and a rationale for the shooting are all among the details that have not been made public as Sheriff Tommy Wooten has repeatedly cited ongoing investigations as due to few details.
It’s a “recipe for unnecessary acrimony and conflict,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. Snyder said the case was part of a long-standing trend among law enforcement agencies to be “secret for no good reason.”
Snyder criticized a North Carolina law that requires a court order for the body camera footage to be made public – a law that allowed a judge on Wednesday to block the footage from being released to media.
The lack of basic facts about the case provides an environment in which “disinformation and conspiracy theories” can thrive and “raise suspicions that they are unduly trying to keep secrets,” Snyder said.
The clearest picture of authorities’ account of the shooting came on Wednesday as District Attorney Andrew Womble told a judge that a qualification made by one of the Brown family’s attorneys was incorrect.
April 23:North Carolina Police promise transparency in Andrew Brown Jr. shoot, but no Bodycam video yet
Womble said the video shows Brown’s car “made contact” with law enforcement twice before gunshots could be heard. He also argued that the video should be withheld from the public while state investigators continue their investigation.
Harry Daniels, an attorney for Brown’s family, objected to Womble citing a video in court that had not been made public: “I heard statements: Well, (Brown) could have hit the deputies… well, show us the video, ”he mentioned.
Daniels said the family’s position remains the same: “An innocent man has been shot.”
While lawyers for the Brown family criticize the handling of the investigation by local law enforcement agencies, protesters still flood the streets of Elizabeth City.
In the hours following Brown’s death, Daniels publicly pressured law enforcement to provide details, saying the family were forced to rely on speculation and eyewitness testimony to understand what had happened.
These accounts have shaped public understanding of the case – more so if Brown had been killed by police years ago, according to Lauren Bonds, the legal director of the National Police Accountability Project.
“People are more likely to trust a victim’s story or a victim’s family than in the past,” she said.
Historically, delays in providing information to the public have been viewed as part of a model of ‘police services and agencies doing everything in their power to protect their officers’ from accountability. , said Bonds. But increasingly, a lack of communication on the part of law enforcement officials arouses public mistrust and allows defenders of victims of police violence to speak out.
In general, there are ways for police to inform the public of the details of an ongoing use of force case without compromising the investigation, according to Bonds. Police don’t need to present a full story to educate the public – video footage, data, video, audio, and raw information can all help prevent misinformation.
While it is not unusual for the broadcast of body camera footage to be delayed after a police shootout, cellphone videos of spectators are increasingly used to document police brutality.
“We got used to being able to see the tape right away,” Snyder said.
Philip Stinson, a former police officer and current professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, says the lack of details made public at this point is not necessarily a sign that police are blocking or trying to cover up excessive force – it could be a sign of a thorough investigation.
“Every case is different – this one makes no sense,” Stinson said. With video evidence, seven MPs on leave and widespread public attention, it is likely that the officers’ use of force is likely to be under close scrutiny, he said.
Wooten, the chief sheriff, has repeatedly cited ongoing investigations as the reason for the lack of detail. “While we cannot show the public what has happened at this time, independent investigators are working to complete their investigation,” Wooten said in a written statement. “As soon as all the important facts are communicated to me, I will act quickly to ensure accountability and I will be as transparent as possible with the public.”
Wooten said he was disappointed a judge didn’t allow the footage to be released on Wednesday.
But in the aftermath of a year of protests against police brutality and in the days following the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, many people are calling for more transparency from the police, John David, consultant in strategic communications, author and speaker, told USA Today.
“It sounds like the same thing we’ve been hearing for years,” David said. Such assurances no longer necessarily “hold water” in America.
Contribute: The Associated Press