Prosecutors decline to charge North Carolina officer in killing of Keith Scott

No charges will be brought against Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Brentley Vinson in the September shooting death of a man in University City, District Attorney Andrew Murray announced Wednesday.

Keith Lamont Scott, 43, was shot Sept. 20 in a confrontation with officers outside his apartment.

Murray said that evidence in the case shows that Scott stepped out of his SUV with a gun in his hand and ignored at least 10 commands from the five officers on the scene to drop it.

Murray said that Scott obtained the gun — which had been stolen in Gaston County — 18 days before the confrontation. One bullet was found in the chamber of the gun, the safety was off and Murray said Scott’s DNA was found on the grip and ammunition slide.
Murray said that speculation in the community that Scott was unarmed — initial reports from a family member on Facebook said he was holding a book — were untrue.

“A reading book was not found in the front or back seats of Mr. Scott’s SUV,” Murray said.

Officer Vinson’s gun was examined after the shooting and four bullets were missing, Murray said. Guns taken from the other officers at the scene had not been fired, he said.

People who claimed on social media that they had seen the shooting and Scott was unarmed were later found to be in error — three people who’d made the claim told State Bureau of Investigation agents in interviews that they hadn’t actually seen the shooting.

Murray said he ran the evidence in the case past 15 veteran prosecutors in his office and they were unanimous in their recommendation that there was insufficient evidence to charge Vinson in the case.

In the aftermath of Scott’s death, Charlotte was roiled by two nights of rioting and nearly a week of street demonstrations. After street violence, dozens of arrests and the death of one man in uptown, Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency.

CMPD was the original agency investigating Scott’s shooting, but the State Bureau of Investigation took over when his wife, Rakeyia Scott, exercised her right under N.C. law to have the independent agency do the inquiry.

Scott, father of seven, the son of a police detective and a former mall security officer, suffered from traumatic brain injury sustained during a motorcycle crash in South Carolina in November 2015.

Scott was a convicted felon who was sentenced in 2005 to seven years in Texas for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

After Murray’s announcement, the city of Charlotte released a statement:

“We recognize that for some members of our community, this news will be met with different reactions. No matter where you stand on the issue, the events surrounding the Scott shooting have forever changed our community, and we intend to learn from and build a stronger Charlotte because of it.

“The city is committed to continuing its work with the community to preserve safety, trust and accountability.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police were put on alert for the city’s reaction to the announcement.

All the department’s specialized units, including its riot squad, were mobilized. CMPD’s command center, which was used during the 2012 Democratic Convention and other high-profile events, also was activated.

Officers were notified that they may have to work 12-hour shifts.

Murray met Wednesday morning with Scott’s wife, Rakeyia Scott, and Monnett. “The family was very gracious,” he said.

Murray said that rumors and social media reports about the case did not stand up to scrutiny, among them: That Scott was unarmed, that he was holding a book not a gun, that he didn’t own a weapon, that other officers at the scene shot Scott besides Vinson.

Rakeyia Scott gave statements after the shooting, Murray said, that her husband did not have a gun. She has maintained that he did not have a firearm after January 2016, though Murray said the two had quarreled over text messages in the weeks before the shooting about his gun.

In all, 63 SBI agents were assigned to the investigation, about a quarter of the agency’s force, Murray said.

In laying out a timeline of the case, he said officers were staked out in the parking lot of Scott’s apartment complex looking for a suspect in an unrelated case. They saw Scott pull in, then leave.

Murray then showed a surveillance video from a nearby 7-Eleven store of Scott walking in. Murray said there was a bulge clearly visible at the ankle holster where Scott kept his gun.

Then, Murray said, Scott returned to the parking lot next to the officers, hollowed the tobacco out of a cigarello and began stuffing what appeared to be marijuana into it from a pill bottle.

Only when Vinson saw Scott hold up a semi-automatic pistol did officers decide to confront him, Murray said. Vinson and another officer drove away, put on tactical vests labeled “Police” and called for other officers to help them and a marked police SUV with a uniformed officer.

When they arrived, they blocked Scott’s SUV and called upon him to come out, then told him at least 10 times to drop the gun, Murray said.

“Mr. Scott did not comply with those commands,” Murray said.

Scott held the gun in his hand, though he didn’t raise it, Murray said. Officers said in interviews with investigators that Scott appeared to have a blank stare and was in a trance-like state, Murray said.

When Scott fell, the gun landed near his waist and one of the officers pushed it away from him, then stood over it, Murray said.

Robert Taylor, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas and a former police officer in Portland, Ore, said clearing Vinson of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting was an easy call.

A person with a gun under those circumstances, represents a danger to officers and the public, Taylor said.

“This is pretty cut and dry,” he said.

Taylor said CMPD likely intensified public outcry by initially refusing released video footage that captured the confrontation. Given the outrage in recent years about police use of force, Taylor said, it remains baffling why CMPD didn’t make the video public sooner.

CMPD said at the time that it was holding off on releasing the video until the State Bureau of Investigation had interviewed all witnesses.

Now, he said, Charlotte leaders must try to rebuild the fractured relationship between the police department and the African-American community.

“I try to stay positive and remind people that before any great change in this country there has been conflict,” Taylor said.

“There are real feelings of fear in the African-American community. You have to build trust over a long period of time. You just can’t wait until something else happens … The onus is on the police department to take a positive approach and look for what good can come out of this. Where do we go as a community?”

Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and nationally-known police accountability expert, said it was always unlikely that Vinson would be criminally charged.

Nationwide, few officers face legal consequences following police shootings, Walker said. Even when they are charged, judges and juries usually exonerate them, he said.

Prosecutors are reluctant to bring cases against officers, Walker said, because they depend on a cooperative relationship with police to do their jobs.

“Chances of increasing the number of prosecutions is very low,” Walker said. “These are people you know. That’s tough. Then they start calculating the odds of getting a conviction. It’s pretty low.”

North Carolina law allows the use of lethal force by police “only when it appears reasonably necessary … to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.”

One of the clarifying gauges: Would another “reasonable officer” in the same situation act the same way?

The so-called “objective reasonableness” standard used in courtrooms originated from a Charlotte excessive force case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s. It asks jurors to assess an officer’s conduct on one key factor: Given the same set of circumstances, would reasonable officers react the same way?

N.C.’s Basic Law Enforcement Training Manual says elements of “objective reasonableness” include the capability of a subject’s ability to carry out the threat of deadly force, whether the threat is imminent and whether the subject has indicated by word or deed that he intends to cause harm.

Criminal charges against police officers related to on-duty shootings are rare. In 2013, Officer Wes Kerrick was arrested and charged with voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed African-American.

Then-police chief Rodney Monroe argued that there was no evidence of malice on Kerrick’s part, ruling out a murder or a stronger manslaughter count. Kerrick used bad judgment and excessive force in defending himself, but did not have any premeditation, Monroe said.

Kerrick’s 2015 trial ended with a deadlocked jury that had voted 8-4 for acquittal. Later, the city of Charlotte paid a $2.25 million settlement with Ferrell’s family.

Vinson, who fired the shots, was immediately put on administrative leave, which is routine in such cases.

Vinson, 26, was in plain clothes but wore a vest that identified him as a police officer. He joined CMPD in 2014 and was assigned to the Metro Division. At the time of the shooting, he had no disciplinary actions on his personnel record.

Vinson played football for Ardrey Kell High School and was an all-conference safety and wide receiver in his junior year. He missed playing his senior year because of injury.
He studied criminal justice at Liberty University, where he was football captain and defensive back with a team-high 69 tackles in 2012, his senior year.

CMPD Chief Kerr Putney gave this account in the days after the confrontation:
Scott drew the attention of officers trying to serve an arrest warrant on an unrelated suspect at the Village at College Downs apartments because they saw him rolling marijuana in his vehicle.

Police were going to let it go and continue on their original mission until an officer spotted a weapon in the vehicle, Putney said.

“It was not lawful for him to possess a firearm,” Putney said. “There was a crime he committed and the gun exacerbated the situation.”

Putney said he found nothing in the days after the shooting to indicate that Vinson, who shot Scott, acted inappropriately, given the totality of the circumstances, and said he did not think his officers broke the law that day.

Officers made repeated commands for Scott to drop his weapon, Putney said. Police were, he said, reacting to what appeared to be an imminent threat.

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