By Austin Nolen
7/14 Update: The Declaration has learned that neither Officer Carrelli nor Officer Dang have had any citizen complaints made against them during their time as Philadelphia Police officers. We do not know whether they were ever subject to an internal investigation or discipline initiated within the Police Department.
In the early morning hours of December 15th, 2014, Brandon Tate-Brown was shot and killed by Philadelphia police officer Nicholas Carrelli. Occurring just weeks after large protests in Philly about Ferguson and Staten Island, the case quickly became the focal point of similar organizing and protests here. Chief among the complaints was the City’s lack of transparency in the case.
Now, thanks to a lawsuit by the family (and not some charitable motive by city officials), the record has begun to fill in, though it is not yet complete. Meanwhile, all sides in the debate seem interested in portraying the newly released documents in a light favorable to their side. In light of these developments, I’ve spent a good deal of time reviewing the documents to try and find out, as best as I possibly can, the answer to the question “what happened to Brandon Tate-Brown?”
The video evidence that’s available doesn’t show much. Three out of the five videos show nothing of the shooting beyond the reflections of domelights. The fourth video, shot from inside a bank lobby across the street, makes only one thing clear: the lights on Tate-Brown’s car are on, but dimmer than other those of other cars, suggesting that they were not in an appropriate mode for driving at night.
The fifth, and most significant video, similarly shows that his lights were dimmer than others. More importantly, it shows the moment Brandon Tate-Brown was shot, and that he wasn’t reaching into his car when it happened, contrary to the original police story. At best – as Commissioner Ramsey now claims – the initial police story was flawed; at worst, authorities willfully lied to the family, the media, and the public. None of this answers the root question, however: was officer Carrelli justified in shooting? To get an answer, we have to turn to the rest of the public record as it exists so far, to see if we can believe the story told by Carrelli and his partner Heng Dang.
Tate-Brown’s supporters and his family’s lawyer have tried to discredit the two officers in various ways. In his initial complaint, lawyer Brian Mildenberg asserts that “one eyewitness… stated that the discharging officer came up to him and told him that Brandon was pulled over because he matched the description of a suspect from an earlier robbery.” However, the released interview records reveal that an eyewitness claimed to have heard a sergeant say this to an officer. No other witness whose account is public claims to have heard a similar exchange.
Moreover, Sergeant George Ackerman, the first ranking officer to arrive on the scene, told investigators after the shooting that he’d followed Tate-Brown’s car earlier in the night.
Some have also attempted to diminish the officers’ credibility by pointing to a short summary typed by a first responder, in which they write that a “police officer stated that the patient shot at a police officer.” However, the record of a police interview with an EMT points at a sergeant making this claim, not one of the officers involved. The limited information available makes it impossible, at this point, to determine whether the summary and interview claims were made by the same person, but both accounts include many of the same specific details of the attempts to treat Tate-Brown.
In short, there’s no evidence in the record linking the actual officers involved to these inaccurate claims. In addition, in the interviews of Carrelli and Dang released to the public, neither officer ever claims that Tate-Brown was reaching into his car when shot. In fact, only one witness makes this claim: the same witness who ran across Frankford to assist police, and who had an obstructed view of the passenger side of Tate-Brown’s car. His motives in making the claim are unknown, as are the reasons this story became the police account for six months.
The evidence so far does not appear to support many of the claims of Tate-Brown’s family and supporters about his death, but a full conclusion about the shooting can’t be reached on this limited record. Similarly, there are still unresolved issues about the investigation itself: did investigators disregard the early claim that Tate-Brown was reaching for a gun when shot? If not, how much weight was this claim given in their findings that the shooting was justified? Court proceedings and further document releases should help fill in the gaps.
In the end, regardless of all the broad moral and legal principals, there’s one crucial thing to remember: Brandon Tate-Brown was a living, breathing, loving and flawed human being, just as we all are. If you’re the kind of person who needs proof of that, or if you, like me, sometimes lose sight of that fact under the legalese, I suggest you consult some of the photos and videos of Brandon that have been posted online. Here are a few to start with.
Even if, in the final analysis, the shooting was completely acceptable, what happened next was inexcusable. The Police Department and District Attorney operated in almost total secrecy, as if only their internal process mattered, leaving Brandon’s family, friends and the public wondering if he was simply taken arbitrarily, and whether they would get any answers.
The City has ever so slowly begun moving in the direction of transparency. Let’s keep pushing them that way.
To view the investigative materials released by the City so far, including a link to the specialized media player necessary to view some of the videos, click here. Some of the videos are artificially cut off when viewed online, and should be downloaded to be seen in full. Both The Declaration in general, and The Public’s Record blog in particular will continue following the case as it moves through the courts.