Documents released in police shooting shed new light on Tate-Brown case

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Tanya Dickerson-Brown, mother of Brandon Tate-Brown, has been at the forefront of protests calling for more information about her son’s death at the hands of police. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / File Photograph)

The Philadelphia police officer who fired the shot that killed Brandon Tate-Brown last December told investigators that he opened fire to prevent the 26-year-old man from getting to a gun wedged into his car's front seat.

In a statement made public Tuesday with the city's unprecedented release of documents on the Frankford man's death, Officer Nicholas Carrelli of the 15th District said he shot Tate-Brown as he rounded the back of his Dodge Charger in pursuit of the gun.

"I wanted to discharge before I lost sight of him because I feared that he would be able to get the gun before I would be able to protect myself," Carrelli told an Internal Affairs investigator.

That account differs from the one law enforcement officials gave after the Dec. 15 shooting, in which they said Tate-Brown was shot as he reached into the passenger side of the car to grab a gun.

Carrelli's statement, and the documents released with it, provide the first detailed look at a shooting that has sparked controversy and protests across the city, and linked Tate-Brown's name with those of other black men across the nation killed by police.

The documents include witness statements, grainy videos of the incident, and a report on DNA evidence from the scene.

In the past, city officials have been tight-lipped about police shootings, releasing only a few paragraphs of preliminary information on the Police Department's website and typically not naming the officers involved.

Mayor Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the release of the files signaled a "commitment to greater transparency."

"There has not been such a release in a case like this," he wrote in an e-mail.

Kelvyn Anderson of the Police Advisory Commission, a citizen review board, said he was hopeful that the release signaled a new path for the department.

"I think it's a long time coming," he said. "And I'm pleased to see that this is, hopefully, the beginning of what will be a more normal approach to releasing this type of material."

McDonald said the city and the Police Department were developing new protocols for releasing information in police-involved shootings based on recommendations from the Department of Justice and the national Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which is led by Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.

Carrelli and his partner, Heng Dang, were cleared of any wrongdoing in the shooting after an Internal Affairs investigation and a review of the incident by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. The officers, both hired in 2013, have returned to street duty.

The shooting sparked raucous protests across the city and prompted a lawsuit by Tate-Brown's family.

Brian Mildenberg, the lawyer for the family, called the department's initial account of the shooting - in which officials said Tate-Brown had been reaching for a gun - "a complete and utter lie."

"They've changed their tune now," he said.

Ramsey said the department's initial accounts of shootings were preliminary. He said Carrelli's statement to investigators matches witness statements that were also released Tuesday. He declined to comment further, citing the lawsuit.

"A matter is before court, and the jury to decide, at some point in time in the future," Ramsey said. "In any event, reviewed by both the department and the district attorney, it was ruled as a justifiable shooting."

Tate-Brown was pulled over on the 6600 block of Frankford Avenue around 2:40 a.m.

According to documents released Tuesday, events unfolded as follows:

Dang, who was driving a patrol car with Carrelli in the passenger seat, told investigators that the headlights of Tate-Brown's rented car were out, with only the running lights on.

The officers said they pulled the car over and ordered Tate-Brown out after they grew suspicious about the rental car's provenance. Tate-Brown, who worked for Hertz, told officers that the car was a Hertz rental his manager had lent him, but the license plate indicated that the car came from Dollar Car, the officers said. Dollar Car and Hertz are owned by the same company.

When the officers returned to the car to speak to Tate-Brown about the discrepancy, Carrelli said, he saw a gun wedged between the center console and the passenger seat. Dang said Carrelli mouthed "gun" at him over the roof of the car, and then ordered Tate-Brown to step outside.

Carrelli said he remembered that Tate-Brown's hands shook as he got out of the car.

Carrelli said he told his partner to put Tate-Brown in handcuffs, and added that he had seen a gun in the car. At that, Carrelli said, Tate-Brown's eyes widened.

"But, it wasn't on me," Carrelli recalled Tate-Brown as saying.

Dang tried to put Tate-Brown in handcuffs, Carrelli said, but Tate-Brown resisted.

A witness watching from a window on Frankford later told police that Dang asked Tate-Brown if he had a gun several times.

"The officer told the guy that he needed to answer because there was now a gun pointed at the guy's back," the witness said. The officer, however, was pointing it at the ground, the witness said.

A struggle ensued.

Witnesses told investigators that they watched the officers and Tate-Brown wrestle on the ground for several minutes. Twice, they said, Tate-Brown broke away from the officers and ran for the car. It seemed as if he was trying to retrieve something, the witness at the window said.

"He lacked the posture of someone who was trying to get in the car and drive away," that witness said.

The second time, both officers said, Tate-Brown managed to get half of his body into the car before they pulled him out.

When Tate-Brown broke free and started running toward the car a third time, rather than chasing him, Carrelli said, he wanted to create space to draw his weapon.

He told investigators that he had a Taser but could not have used it to stop Tate-Brown. "I wouldn't have been able to make contact with the Taser," he said.

Tate-Brown was rounding the back of the car when Carrelli fired, the officer said.

"After he gets to the other side of the trunk, but before he gets to the roof of the car, that is when I discharged my weapon," he said.

Other officers soon swarmed the scene. A sergeant spoke briefly to Dang and Carrelli about the shooting, and crime-scene investigators moved in to collect evidence.

Medics treated Tate-Brown for a wound to the head, found a pulse, and tried to revive him, but ultimately pronounced him dead. They waited at the scene with his body in an ambulance.

One bullet casing was found in the street.

A DNA test on the trigger and grip of the gun in Tate-Brown's car showed that three men's DNA were on the handle, but that the major source of DNA was Tate-Brown.

Mildenberg, the lawyer for Tate-Brown's family, said he had reviewed the material released Tuesday, but would be requesting more as his lawsuit against the city proceeds.

"We will be requesting every last document, every last video, every last e-mail, regarding this," he said.

He said Tate-Brown's mother, Tanya Dickerson-Brown, who has been at the forefront of protests calling for information in her son's death, was too upset to watch the videos.


awhelan@philly.com

215-854-2961@aubreyjwhelan

Inquirer staff writer Mark Fazlollah contributed to this article.