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Retired Police Chief Chimes In On Excessive Force Used In Elizabeth City, N.C.

May 18, 2021
Originally published on May 18, 2021 4:02 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tragic but justified - that's District Attorney Andrew Womble's conclusion on the fatal police shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. last month. Deputies shot and killed Brown in his car after they arrived at his house in Elizabeth City, N.C., to serve a drug-related warrant. Here's District Attorney Womble earlier today.

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ANDREW WOMBLE: The officers' duties were to take Mr. Brown into custody. They simply couldn't let him go.

SHAPIRO: Brown's family has called his death an execution and called for the Department of Justice to intervene. We're joined now by Jay Fortenberry. He's the former police chief of Edenton, N.C., and teaches in Elizabeth City State University's criminal justice department.

Good to have you here.

JAY FORTENBERRY: Hey, Ari. How are you doing?

SHAPIRO: All right. I know you've been following this case closely. So what's your first reaction to the DA's announcement that officers will not face criminal charges in this case?

FORTENBERRY: Well, you know, I know he put a lot of thought into it and researched it. I'm not familiar with all of the facts of the case or am I privy to all of the information that's in the case. I'm surprised like everyone else to see, you know, what the result was, but, you know, it's not surprising to me that sometimes vehicles can be used as a deadly weapon as he said.

SHAPIRO: Well...

FORTENBERRY: That's not surprising to me, but...

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I mean, let me ask about that. He says the vehicle was being used as a deadly weapon. There is also footage showing the vehicle driving away from the officers as they fired the fatal shot. What do you make of that?

FORTENBERRY: You know, I think that's one of the things that's going to come into play in the FBI investigation possibly or in other things. And like I said, I'm not privy - you can't tell from the video a lot of times. Video can be misleading sometimes. So it's hard to base everything just on words, you know? If we knew the statements from the officers and what they'd said, that would make a difference, too. But, you know, in North Carolina, officers are allowed to use reasonable force or deadly force actually. 15A-401(d)(2) says to effect the arrest or prevent escape from custody someone using a deadly weapon. And...

SHAPIRO: What about the way the officers approached this incident in the first place? They were serving a warrant on drug allegations. Do you think it was appropriate to enter this residential neighborhood with a tactical unit? Was that the right choice?

FORTENBERRY: You know, that's another controversial issue as well. I did an article a few years back and published in the FBI Bulletin on that topic. You know, police militarization in a democratic society and when to use that type of force. It's unfortunate that he died on a crime that is mala prohibita. It's - this is not a mala in se crime. It's not a murder, a rape, a robbery. It's a drug crime, you know? And it's only a crime because we say it's a crime. So our society dictates that. And it is sad that - and sometimes it's a double-edged sword. Sometimes police departments, if you don't take enough with you and - sometimes a use of force itself can deter the use of force against the police. Sometimes they - the show of force can deter. But in other times, too, it can be too much. So it's...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

FORTENBERRY: ...Something that needs to be examined.

SHAPIRO: This is obviously controversial, and there's disagreement on the question. The Brown family, meanwhile, says the DA is trying to whitewash this killing. They call it a slap in the face. And they say footage showing four officers not firing their weapons is evidence that they did not feel their lives were endangered. How does that sound to you?

FORTENBERRY: You know, it is troubling when you look at the video and you think about what happened. But again, I'm reserved of my opinion based on all the facts. You have to get all the facts and see what's coming in. I think that outside investigation is a good thing. I know they'll cooperate fully, I hope, with an FBI investigation. And you have to look at all the facts surrounding the situation. And that's...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

FORTENBERRY: ...One thing, you know, I don't want to get drug into a, you know, should they have done it...

SHAPIRO: Sure.

FORTENBERRY: ...Should they have not have done it, but...

SHAPIRO: You know, I know this is still fresh, and we're still learning new details, but just in our final moments, as someone who teaches criminal justice, what do you think the lesson of this interaction is? If you were to include it in your curriculum, just briefly, what would you want your students to learn?

FORTENBERRY: Oh, yeah. Future criminal justice students, you know, at Elizabeth City State University, you got to look at situations like this as a learning experience and look at - you know, you can Monday morning quarterback it, but you can also learn from it. You know, what can we do different next time? What use of force should have been used or what could we have done different? I know even the sheriff himself will probably be looking at that. In the future...

SHAPIRO: All right.

FORTENBERRY: ...What do we need to consider? But...

SHAPIRO: Jay Fortenberry...

FORTENBERRY: ...That's a lot of things.

SHAPIRO: Jay Fortenberry is former police chief of Edenton, N.C., and now teaches criminal justice at Elizabeth City State University.

Thank you very much.

FORTENBERRY: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.