When Brandon Smith was shot to death by New Hanover County Sheriffs’ deputies in 2013, his family learned about it on Facebook.
An officer posted that a suspect the department had been tracking was shot and killed during an arrest attempt, Smith’s sister Georgia Davis recalled.
For days, weeks, then years, information about Smith’s fatal encounter with deputies dribbled out. Each detail invited a new question, Davis said.
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“We’re left with 1,000 questions,” Davis said.
Davis believes that every time law enforcement uses dangerous physical force on anyone, the public has a right to know every detail. The more officials hold onto that information, Davis said, the more suspicious families like hers become.
Last year, legislators created a confidential database to collect information about fatal and serious use of force incidents by law enforcement. In the state budget, Republican leaders took it a step further.
They included a provision in the budget that blocks any local agencies from releasing any data on use of force incidents to the public. The mandate applied to data already collected and anything gathered in the future.
After George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Davis and her family took to the streets to urge protestors in Wilmington to demand action in her brother’s case. The community rallied around her, offering a megaphone for Davis’ demands.
“The family has some questions, just some really simple questions, and they were begging for answers,” said Rebecca Trammel, a community organizer who heard Davis speak at a rally in Wilmington in 2020. “Their hearts will not heal until they have those answers. They are simple questions, and I don’t understand why they are being denied answers.”
Davis’ account and what she has pieced together about her brother’s final moments differ greatly from descriptions offered by New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David, according to a Wilmington Star-News report.
David said Smith was on the run, dodging an arrest warrant naming him as a suspect in the shooting of a deputy in the leg. Davis insists law enforcement had the wrong man.
Both sides agree on this: Smith was unarmed.
The State Bureau of Investigation investigated. The sheriffs’ department also reviewed the incident. David cleared the deputies and disclosed some information about the incident to the public.
Most disturbing to Davis was the district attorney’s disclosure that deputies unleashed 24 rounds at her brother in less than three seconds.
More information seeped out slowly, mostly not from the police. A nurse on the scene offered some details about Smith’s final moments, describing how he lingered in pain for many minutes before finally succumbing.
An autopsy described 12 bullet wounds; family members examined his body and counted double the amount, Davis said. In 2020, an independent journalist, Zachery Wickes, posted to Facebook an audio clip from an officer’s radio, calling into question whether officers ordered her brother to show his hands before the firing started. The recording ignited more mourning among Davis’ family when it went viral.
Davis sees a better process for her family and for others. Family members of people injured or killed by police should be able to read SBI investigation reports on these incidents, she said. They should be shown police body and car cam video. They need to know if officers who used violence have a history of doing that, or if they had done so since.
Many law enforcement leaders say that law enforcement officers should not have their names publicly disseminated after a use of force incident.
“Should personnel law be different for a cop than any other profession?” said Bill Hollingsed, executive director of the NC Association of Chiefs of Police.
Rep. Marcia Morey, a Democrat from Durham and a former district court judge, said families are right to demand release of more information. She said the public ought to know what courtroom officials have long known: Some law enforcement officers have a pattern of using force. They should be publicly outed, Morey said.
“The judges knew who they were. The lawyers knew,” Morey said. “It was just a very frustrating process.”
Sen. Milton “Toby” Fitch, a Democrat and former Superior Court judge, agreed. As a defense attorney, then as a judge, Fitch said he saw problem officers escape scrutiny for decades.
“These are not isolated situations,” he said. “It’s the same situation over and over.”