The Dubious Justification for Andrew Brown’s Death

May 19, 2021: No charges for Brown’s killers + deconstructing the letter that accused Heidi Carter of racism + Juul’s judicial death sentence + a hedge fund eyes Duke + Durham’s cop alternative

Today’s Number: 55.17

Proposed tax rate, in cents per $100 of assessed property value, in new Durham city manager Wanda Page’s proposed budget, a 2-cent increase.

  • It would fund a new Community Safety Department that operates as an alternative to the DPD, pay off bonds funding affordable housing, and give employees a raise.

  • For a $300,000 house—above the median value, but I like round numbers—the city’s new tax bill would come to $1,655, an increase of $60 from the current rate.


1. No Charges for Deputies Who Killed Andrew Brown

Andrew Womble, the Pasquotank County district attorney, had already made his position clear. Weeks ago, while arguing against releasing body-camera footage of Andrew Brown’s fatal shooting, he said deputies were justified because Brown hit them with his car. So yesterday’s announcement that he wouldn’t press charges wasn’t a surprise.

At a press conference, Womble admitted that Brown was driving away when deputies killed him.

  • We already knew this. According to a family autopsy, Brown was shot five times, including once to the back of the head. Neighbors told reporters the deputies started shooting at him as he drove away.

But Womble said the deputies—who were serving a drug warrant the morning after former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin’s murder conviction—“perceived a threat” as Brown drove away.

  • From the N&O: “The officers used deadly force when ‘a violent felon used a deadly weapon to place their lives in danger,’ Womble said. He said the officers were threatened when Brown backed away while Deputy Joel Lunsford had his hand on the door of Brown’s vehicle, pulling the deputy off his feet onto the hood. Womble said Lunsford also had to brace himself as he spun to the left to get out of the way.”

The body-cam clips he showed the media … do not show that. This still frame is the from the precise moment the first shot is heard. The car is beyond the deputies’ perimeter, having driven in between deputies at maybe 10 miles per hour.

Womble made sure to mention that the deputies said they found meth in the dead guy’s car. And if you’re wondering why they came locked and loaded to a drug warrant:

  • “Womble noted Brown’s resisting arrest charges and convictions for assault, assault with a deadly weapon and assault inflicting serious injury dating back to 1995. Womble said deputies were told that Brown was not known to carry weapons. There were no weapons found in the vehicle.”

  • “Brown’s felony record did not play into Womble’s assessment of his threat to officers, but ‘the fact he was dealing heroin and fentanyl that is killing people on a daily basis was not lost on me,’ the district attorney said.”

Brown family lawyer Bakari Sellers:

2. The Letter That Started the Coleman Affair

Yesterday, The Assembly published my story on the decision not to renew Durham County manager Wendell Davis’s contract. Because The Assembly is a statewide mag, some Durham-specific details weren’t really germane—and they also slowed down an already-long story. But I think they’re important.

This week, I’ll dive deeper into the letter Davis wrote accusing Commissioner Heidi Carter of harboring racial bias and the Coleman Report—the two investigations the county hired Duke law professor James Coleman to conduct—which found that Carter did not act out of racial bias and Davis did not violate ethical rules forbidding him from interfering in elections.

Today, the letter.

In February 2020, two weeks before the March primary, a source leaked me a letter Davis had written Heidi Carter earlier that month accusing her of racial bias. The letter followed a scolding Carter gave Davis in a work session over what she saw as unnecessary delays to a school construction plan.

It started a firestorm. Coleman later found that Davis didn’t write it to influence the election—we’ll discuss that later. Here, I’ll look more closely at the six specific incidents of racial bias Davis cited to justify the this charge:

  • “Since 2016 [when Carter took office], you have demonstrated a consistent pattern of disparate treatment towards me and employees of color.”

For all the attention the letter received, its particulars have never received the scrutiny it deserves.

Allegation 1:

Carter called a Black woman “articulate.” This is true. It happened at a meeting several years ago. Carter said she was “mortified” to learn of that word’s derogatory connotations.

Allegation 2:

Carter told Davis that when he spoke to her, she felt like she was being lectured. This is also true, though it occurred during a formal performance review.

Allegation 3:

Carter told him, “You work for the board, and when we tell you to do something, you’d better grin and bear it.” Carter denies saying this, but assume she did.

Davis told Coleman he took the phrase “grin and bear it” to mean he had to “go along to get along so that whites would not make trouble for the Black person or the Black community.”

In his letter, Davis noted that the term derives from the Old English word grinnian. In his interpretation, it “harkens back to a period of American history where people of color were slaves and of more recent history, when people of color suffered under Jim Crow and segregation laws. … This term has far-reaching implications as it relates to Black people and the history of our nation. But this perceived bigotry nor this language should have a place in Durham County government today!”

Grinnian was indeed an Old English word (“to show one’s teeth in anger”) that evolved into grin. The idiom “grin and bear it,” however, didn’t originate with slavery but on the high seas. It first appeared on the page in 1775, in W. Hickey’s Memoirs: “I recommend you to grin and bear it (an expression used by sailors after a long continuance of bad weather).” The term is commonly used in mainstream publications. Neither the Merriam-Webster nor Cambridge dictionary identifies it as offensive.

Let’s call this etymological hyperbole.

Allegation 4:

Davis wrote that Carter’s “disparate treatment towards me and employees of color” led employees to “explicitly” speak of “their own observations of how the county attorney and I were treated during specific board meetings” in an employee survey.

Well … The survey asked about 600 employees what they would change if they could. Responding anonymously, most said they wanted more money. Others complained about all levels of management. One comment criticized “certain county commissioners” who are “abusive to staff and openly disregard advice from both their county manager and county attorney.” It named Wendy Jacobs. No comment mentioned Carter.

Note: The Assembly story briefly touched on the fifth and sixth allegations, but here’s a bit more detail.

Allegation 5:

Davis said he “cannot express the level of frustration expressed by our workforce with your persistent questions regarding [the county’s employee compensation study]. After an untold number of emails and inquiries to the African American staff and the African American consultant, it wasn’t until months later when the African American consultant brought his white female counterpart to the board meeting that you mostly stopped the shenanigans.”

What Davis called “shenanigans” seems more like confusion, and Carter wasn’t the only one in the dark. The Compensation and Classification Study—conducted by the Management Advisory Group, or MAG—was supposed to take three months. It took 19, running from February 2018 to September 2019.

“The commissioners got crappy presentations,” a source told me, “initially by the consultant group and second and third by the HR department. What got frustrating was that it wasn’t clear why the consultants were making the choices they did.”

The white consultant appeared at commissioners’ final review of the study, on Sept. 23, 2019. In the weeks before, commissioners (not just Carter) peppered Davis with requests for information.

On Sept. 4, Commissioner Wendy Jacobs emailed, “Many of us continue to feel incredibly frustrated with the way this MAG study has been implemented over the past one-and-a-half years and the way information has or has not been shared with us.” The next day, Carter asked Davis for information about Durham County’s current and proposed pay scales and comparative rates from other markets. On Sept. 22, she reiterated her request. She never received it.

Allegation 6:

Davis believed Carter’s sharp criticism of his school-funding plan crossed a line.

Coleman concluded that Carter was wrong about Davis dragging things out. Davis received DPS’s list eight days before the meeting and couldn’t create a revised plan without it. Commissioners and staff said they were taken aback by Carter’s rebuke, which many found demeaning and a few thought racist.

As my story reported, however:

Carter’s allies told me that Coleman’s narrow view missed Carter’s point. Davis’ staff always followed one request for information with another, delaying big, priority items. A bond referendum the school board thought would go on the 2018 ballot was bumped to 2020, then to 2022. “At every single step, we’ve given them exactly what they’ve asked for,” school board member Mike Lee said. “They continue to move the goalposts.”

Coleman never spoke to Lee or any other member of the school board.

RELATED: On Monday, Durham County commissioners appointed Claudia Hager as the interim manager.

  • The other two possibilities I’d heard mentioned were general manager Jodi Miller, a white* woman, and Drew Cummings, Davis’s chief of staff and a white man. (Edit: I’d originally incorrectly written that Miller was a Black woman. I am not sure why I did that.)

  • Commissioners Howerton and Burns, who objected to Davis’s dismissal, had been frustrating the process of installing an interim. Hager, a Black woman and a close Davis ally, would have been most palatable to them. But she’s also the GM who oversees budget stuff, and this is budget season, which made her an obvious choice.

3. Durham Judge Hits E-Cig Maker with Big Sanctions

Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson sided with the state AG’s Office and slapped a ton of sanctions of the e-cig maker Juul for destroying documents and ignoring court orders. The state alleged in a lawsuit that Juul marketed e-cigs to minors.

  • “To address Juul allegedly deleting social media posts and age verification data, along with providing thousands of irrelevant documents before trial, the state successfully proposed sanctions that partially decided the case. Hudson determined Juul had violated the Unfair or Deceptive Trade Practices Act—which can carry an up to $5,000 fine for each violation—thousands of times.”

  • “Hudson also agreed to tell the jury at the upcoming trial that it may ‘draw adverse inference that all the social media posts Juul deleted or caused to be deleted were youth oriented.’” (N&O)

  • Juul says it didn’t delete evidence, but the pretrial sanctions could be an effective death sentence.

4. Florida Hedge Fund Wants to Split Duke Energy

Elliott Management, one of the utility’s top shareholders, proposed splitting Duke into three companies based on the regions where it operates—in the Carolinas, the Midwest, and in Florida.