After police released little 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 that while maintaining strong ties with the Elizabeth City Police Department, their relationship with the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office has been strained. According to them, the agency has not done much to build trust among blacks and excludes blacks from discussions about policies that affect the community, such as the use of body cameras. The publication reflects the racial division in this rural district of about 40,000 people, which is 54% white and 36% black with a white sheriff, a white district lawyer and mostly a White Council of Commissioners. However, Elizabeth City is 50% black and 37% white with a black mayor, a black police chief and a majority black city council. The city has nearly 1
Activists and city officials say the sheriff’s office has made Elizabeth City residents even more wary of county officials regarding Brown’s death.
“People in Elizabeth City are deeply, deeply concerned about this,” said Christy Packet-Williams, ACLU director of the North Carolina Intelligent Justice Campaign and activist in Elizabeth City. “There is a racial division between the city and the county, and that only widens the division.”
Elizabeth City officials say their connection to Pasquotank County is virtually non-existent.
Councilor Michael Brooks said the city council and the county council of commissioners should hold regular joint meetings to discuss issues such as economic development, racial relations – and police and emergencies such as the unrest surrounding Brown’s death.
Instead, Brooks said the council had poor communication with the county and city officials were forced to speak publicly about the incident to reassure protesters and community members.
“It seems to me that city elected officials are the only ones who carry the burden when (Brown’s death) is caused by county lawmakers,” Brooks told CNN. “It’s really sad and it shows you how strained the relationship is 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 relations between county officials and the black community due to the ongoing investigation.
Much of the information about Brown’s death came from his family and their lawyers. The family announced earlier this week that an independent autopsy showed Brown had been shot four times in the right arm and shot in the head while trying to distance himself from the sheriff’s deputies.
Keith Rivers, president of Pasquotank County NAACP, and other civil rights leaders called on Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten II to resign, saying he was not transparent about Brown’s death and had lost all trust and confidence.
“How can he instill and stop unrest in a community when he has not shown any transparency or any level of accountability to himself in that community?” Rivers said. “How can he effectively perform the sheriff’s duties impartially? The integrity is gone.”
But Wooten insists he was transparent and accountable in investigating Brown’s death.
Brown’s family and the district attorney general offered various accounts of what led to the fatal shooting.
District Attorney Andrew Umbel said police officers fired when the car Brown was driving approached them. Brown’s family and lawyers, who watched the video for 20 seconds, say he is moving away to save his life from a shooting.
Wooten also said last week that it did not 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 the release of the video would not hamper the investigation.
“Our county is united behind the importance of making a careful, serious and impartial review of everything that has happened,” Wooten said in a statement Thursday. “Some people want to hurry up with a verdict, while others want to pit people against each other in a way that can only harm our county. My job is to ensure transparency and accountability, while maintaining the ability of independent investigators to consciously, diligently and vital work. “
Pasquotank County Commission Chairman Lloyd Griffin supported Wooten’s work with bodyguards and the investigation.
“Accelerated gathering of evidence and questioning of witnesses would be detrimental to any future lawsuit that could be filed after this tragedy,” Griffin said earlier this week.
The NAACP has received complaints from Black residents about excessive use of force by deputy sheriffs, but the allegations cannot be proven without body cameras, he said.
“The sheriff’s office has been working in the dark for a long time,” Rivers said.
Hold the sheriff accountable
Even with the body cameras now available, state law requires a court order for the footage to be made public.
The Rev. William J. Barber said he was now lobbying the state to change the law and make public recordings of video cameras with body cameras.
Barber, co-chair of the Poor People Campaign and president of Goldsboro, a North Carolina-based Repairers of the Breach, said the current bylaws allow the county to operate without any responsibility for Brown’s death.
Rivers and other civil rights leaders are urging the Attorney General to take over the case or appoint a special prosecutor. They also say the Justice Department should launch an investigation into a “model or practice” at the sheriff’s office. Blacks in Elizabeth City have told him they have long been the target of county sheriff’s deputies and that a federal probe would be the best way to detect any systemic racism, Rivers said.
“To get to racism, you have to study patterns and practices,” Barber said. “Look at the type of arrests they’ve made, see who’s been persecuted in this county and who’s not been persecuted. Look at the difference in sentences, look at the ways people have been treated.”
Packet-Williams said the protests and frustration in Elizabeth City after Brown’s death proved that Wooten had not kept his word.
“If you’re not close to the community you work in, then you’re ineffective,” Phuket-Williams said. “He does not associate with black people who have a radical analysis or critique of the impact of his policies and procedures on that community.”
In a statement Thursday, Wooten defended the case, saying: “I promised the citizens of this county that I would be transparent and accountable on this issue. I was.”
Living in fear
Some blacks in Elizabeth City say Brown’s death has made them afraid to leave their homes.
Christian Gillard said he lived on the street from the place where Brown was killed. He said like a black man, “the thing that happened to him could have happened to me.” Gillard wants to see lawmakers who killed Brown in prosecution.
“Growing up in an area where you’re automatically scared as soon as you walk out of your door and the police stereotype you,” Gillard told CNN. “A lot of people don’t know what that feeling is. A lot of people have never experienced that.”
Meanwhile, as the family waits to see more footage, 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 worried that the delay could lead to more protests.
“In this case, transparency was lacking grotesquely,” the Rev. Greg Drumright, national organizer of Justice 4 Next Generation, told Kate Baldwan of CNN. “The community is tired of waiting and the family is also in a place where they are just fed up with the lack of transparency.”
CNN’s Krishnakumar, Jamiel Lynch, Emma Tucker, Madeleine Holcomb and Brian Todd contributed to this report.