Like all of us, I wanted the truth. A man had been shot. A life had been lost. A family and community were grieving.
That’s why, on Feb. 26, I went to Philadelphia Police Headquarters with community leaders who’d been invited to meet with Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. We were there to view video and photo evidence, and to review redacted versions of witness statements in connection with the controversial Dec. 15 shooting death of Brandon Tate-Brown by a 15th District Police Officer during a car stop.
“Anytime a person loses their life under any circumstance it’s a tragedy,” Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey told me in an interview days after I viewed the videos. “And I’m not trying to minimize that at all. It is truly a tragedy, but we have to get to the facts of what took place, why it happened, and let the cards fall where they may. And that’s all we’re trying to do here, and it was unprecedented quite frankly to allow [Tate-Brown’s family] to see the videos, read the statements, and let you and others see it and so forth, but I think that that’s, again, the right thing to do just to clear up some misinformation that was out there.”
What was out there were statements by Brian Mildenberg, the lawyer for Tate-Brown’s grieving family, who said in published reports that the videos showed that the police “lied” about Tate-Brown reaching into the car’s passenger door for a gun when he was shot. Mildenberg also said that he could see in the videos that Tate-Brown was in back of the car when he was shot, and not near the passenger door, as police said.
I did not see what Mildenberg described when I reviewed the four videos of the fateful car stop. The best view of the incident was from a camera that is obscured by a one-way sign. From that view, I was able to see the police car’s dome lights, a witness on a bike who stopped to watch the incident, a police officer flashing a light, Tate-Brown and two officers scuffling in the street, and a witness who ran into the frame just before another police car arrived.
I told Mr. Mildenberg as much, and he questioned whether I saw the entire video. I asked Commissioner Ramsey to confirm what I’d seen.
“You saw the same thing [Mildenberg] saw and the same thing Mrs. Dickerson saw,” Ramsey said. “We also let them read the witness statements as well, that were redacted, but they saw the statements.”
I read those same statements, though I was not permitted to take notes. Police said this was a necessary precaution to protect the identities of the witnesses in the District Attorney’s ongoing investigation.
The witness statements I reviewed all told similar stories, with a few minor variations. For instance, some witnesses said Tate-Brown broke away from police twice during the struggle, while another said he broke away three times. Despite those variations, the statements’ overall tone indicate that Tate-Brown was involved in a prolonged struggle with two police officers, and was shot while lunging toward the passenger side of his car, where police said a stolen handgun was tucked between the passenger seat and the middle console.
Witness statements also indicate that Tate-Brown, who was shot in the back of the head during the incident, was alive when Fire Department personnel arrived on the scene, and died after they administered first aid and began putting him into an ambulance.
As the only media member to have seen the videos and read the witness statements in the Brandon Tate-Brown shooting, I was obligated to report what I saw, but I chose not to write about it until I could speak personally to Tate-Brown’s mother. I did that in an interview on 900 AM WURD, and what I learned in that conversation was saddening, but real.
Tanya Brown-Dickerson shared with me that her son was a humorous young man who loved to write and to laugh. He was also determined to stand up for the weak. It was that last attribute that changed his life, she said. His desire to protect someone cost him five and a half years in prison.
“Brandon was in love with a young lady,” Brown-Dickerson told me. “She got into an altercation—a huge altercation—eventually a man fought her and then hit her in the face with a pipe. So Brandon defended her. It did get outta control. He ended up with two charges of aggravated assault, but prior to that he’d never been in trouble, and after that [he was never in trouble].
“He did his time and he came home and just wanted to live and work. So he did go to jail, because Brandon didn’t believe that men should hit women. I raised him that way, because I’ve experienced being hit by a man.”
Tate-Brown’s mother told me that her son, who went to prison after 11th grade, got his GED in prison, and was determined to never go back. So he took a fast food job, and then a job at a rental car company. He’d managed to stay out of trouble for years, she said, until that fateful night in December.
Brandon watched a football game at his mother’s house before going to spend time with a friend, she said. He was taking his friend home close to 3 a.m., she said, driving a white Dodge Charger—a car that was registered to the company for which he worked. He was in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia, near Frankford and Dyre Streets. He was driving with his headlights on, she said. The police, who initially said he was driving without headlights when he was stopped, later amended their version of events to say he was driving with the car’s daytime running lights on.
The family’s lawyer, Brian Mildenberg, was quick to point out that discrepancy to me, and to recast the incident by telling me what the family knew about the car Brandon Tate-Brown was driving.
“What we know is that [Brandon] was working with the [car rental] agency and he was driving the vehicle,” Mildenberg said. “That was his regular practice and he was doing so with his employer’s consent.
“Prior to the shooting incident he was in 7-11, and we were able to capture the surveillance video,” Mildenberg said, referencing a video tape that was independently obtained by an investigator working for Mildenberg. “[The video] clearly shows [Brandon] driving the 2014 white Dodge Charger up to the parking lot right in front of the door of the 7-11, so you can see through the glass doors that his headlights are on actually. He actually leaves the car, goes into the store, headlights on the entire time. Comes back out, headlights on, gets into the car, headlights on.”
This is an important point in the family’s view, because they believe Tate-Brown was stopped because he was black and driving a new car in a predominately white area of the city.
I’m not sure if that’s the case, but I do know that the videos I saw clearly showed the car’s headlights were on, albeit dimly. The videos also showed that the rear lights were off, which would have justified a car stop. Photos of the crime scene show a bloodstained sidewalk near the passenger door of the car, which would indicate that Tate-Brown fell at the spot where police said he did.
Still, questions remain. Where did the gun come from that police said they found in the car? Why did the scuffle with police officers begin? Did Tate-Brown turn off his headlights after leaving the 7-11? How long did it take for medical personnel to arrive after Tate-Brown was shot?
In an atmosphere in which both police officers and civilians are wary of one another, where the line between truth and falsehood is too often blurred, the police, in my view, have taken a solid step toward greater transparency.
For the sake of Brandon Tate-Brown’s grieving family–a family that has handled this tragedy with grace and dignity–I’d like to see the police take the next step. I’d like to see the whole truth revealed.
Only then can the healing begin.
Listen to Solomon Jones M-F 7-10 a.m. on 900am WURD radio.