Rick Iwanski was disappointed, but not surprised, when prosecutors announced that no charges would be filed against a Fayetteville, North Carolina, police officer who fatally shot his 22-year-old granddaughter, Jada Elizabeth Johnson, with 17 bullets to the back.
Johnson was experiencing an undiagnosed mental health crisis when police were called to her grandfather’s home on July 1, 2022. During the standoff with police, Johnson grabbed a gun, threatening to harm herself. Iwanski says he was violently kicked to the ground as he moved to protect Johnson when officer Zacharius Borom opened fire into her back.
“We have been expecting this response,” Iwanski said of prosecutors’ decision in May not to charge the officer. “We are quite devastated just the same and are regrouping for the next steps.”
His next steps bypass the criminal justice system in pursuit of justice for his granddaughter. Instead of only pursuing a civil lawsuit, which could leave taxpayers footing the bill for police misconduct, Iwanski is turning to the state legislature. He’s leading an effort to get local lawmakers to fix the criminal legal system that acts as a gatekeeper to accountability and transparency for law enforcement.
Recent high-profile victories for victims of police violence could leave the impression that law enforcement accountability is on the rise. All four former Minneapolis police officers involved in George Floyd’s murder have been sentenced, and there were swift guilty pleas from six former Mississippi law enforcement officers who beat and tortured Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Parker. But those cases are outliers.
While a record-setting 21 on-duty police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter in 2021 in the death of a civilian — according to Bowling Green State University criminal justice professor Philip Stinson, who started tracking such incidents in 2005 — that number represents just a sliver of the over 1,100 people tracked by the Mapping Police Violence as killed by on- and off-duty law enforcement that year.
Now among those thousands of families who say they’ve been failed by the criminal justice systems, Iwanski recently petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly to hold a legislative inquiry into the circumstances of Johnson’s death and whether all law enforcement officials involved handled her case properly. He also has called on the General Assembly to create a special prosecutor’s office to handle deadly use-of-force cases; to establish a program design that follows the statute and allows for victim protections; to improve transparency; provide for an inviolate timeline to complete deadly use-of-force cases; and reform use-of-force policies with a focus on responses to mental health incidents. Iwanski is also calling for the establishment of an independent review board for cases of alleged police misconduct.
Iwanski says he feels optimistic about the progress lawmakers have made since he presented his petition on June 30, especially with seeking funding for more mental health response resources. He in part credits the pressure that cell phone videos have created in “bringing it out from the shadows and letting people see the brutality, the obvious racism involved.” That is forcing legislators to respond, he said.
“I think that the public is just getting sick of it,” he said.
An abysmal record on police accountability
Johnson joins the list of over 330 people killed by law enforcement in North Carolina over the past decade, according to an analysis of the database as of Aug. 9. Of the 100 Black people killed, only two resulted in charges — one case ended in a mistrial, and the other is pending trial.
By comparison, in Georgia, which has a similar population of over 10 million, 458 people were killed by law enforcement during that period, with just 15 cases resulting in charges. Of the nine charged cases in which the victims were Black, four families have received justice with a conviction — one case ended in a mistrial, another had the charges dropped, and the rest are pending trial.
In more populous states, the statistics aren’t any better. In California, there were 1,727 fatal police encounters during the past decade, and only 20 resulted in charges filed. In four cases when charges were brought, the victims were Black — three are pending trial and the fourth case was later dropped.
Three years after Floyd’s murder and the death of Breonna Taylor, several local jurisdictions, including North Carolina, have passed laws and measures that aim to hold police accountable and reform their use-of-force policies.
North Carolina enacted a mere six out of 64 police accountability bills since 2017, according to an analysis by the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law School. Four bills have been passed since 2020, the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism reported.
Iwankski says that those statistics are not sufficient in the battle for police reform, and that’s why he is banking on the creation of an Office of Community Safety, which would at the least remove police officers from responding to mental health calls.
Part of the challenge in prosecuting police officers is the lack of independent authority given to state attorneys general in providing oversight of local law enforcement. In some states, such as Maryland and New York, the attorney general’s office is automatically granted power to act as a special prosecutor to investigate fatal law enforcement encounters with civilians. But in North Carolina, Attorney General Josh Stein’s office does not have this power and can take on cases only at the request of a local district attorney.
Kathy Greggs, co-founder of the Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Taskforce, says Stein’s office should not take the district attorney’s findings in fatal police encounters as gospel. Instead, she said, the office should gain the power to conduct oversight investigations to make sure local officials’ decisions, whether to file charges or not, are sound.
The investigation into the April 2021 death of Andrew Brown Jr. by sheriff’s deputies in Pasquotank County is an example of a case that should have been investigated by a special prosecutor, Greggs says.
Brown was sitting in his car as deputies tried to serve him a search warrant. Brown attempted to drive away, and the deputies shot him five times, including a fatal bullet to the back of the head.
His family fought in court for weeks to see the police body camera footage, which they described as an “execution.” Former Pasquotank District Attorney Andrew Womble declined to press charges against any of the deputies, saying Brown used his car as a deadly weapon. Womble was elected as a superior court judge in 2022.
Following Brown’s death, a Republican lawmaker sponsored a bill requiring that police allow body camera footage to be viewed by a victim’s family within five business days of their request. The lawmaker, state Sen. Danny Britt, sponsored the legislation after conversations brewed within the General Assembly’s Legislative Black Caucus, WFAE reported. The rewritten law includes low-level criminal penalties if the footage is secretly recorded or released to the public.
The law previously gave law enforcement agencies discretion in allowing immediate family or their attorney to review the footage privately.
“We have no civilian oversight over the police,” Greggs said. “We have no one that we can count on in leadership that will hold accountability and transparency in North Carolina, because if we did have it, we wouldn’t have so many people killed.”
Road to accountability in North Carolina
Stein, who announced in January that he’s running for governor, served as a co-chair of North Carolina’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice when it launched in 2020. The task force’s focus is to address existing policies and procedures within the state’s criminal justice system and create solutions to end systemic racism.
There has been “partial success” on dozens of its 125 recommendations to Gov. Roy Cooper, according to the task force’s 2022 status report. The task force recommended that the state “reform investigation and prosecution procedures for officer-involved use of force incidents” and increase transparency for body and dashcam footage, but those efforts have not been fulfilled. Greggs believes Stein dropped the ball as co-chair by not following other states and recommending that his office take over all use-of-force incidents that result in a death.
A public information officer with the State Bureau of Investigation told Capital B in an email that the agency cannot investigate use-of-force situations unless requested by a police chief, sheriff, judge, or district attorney, “as we do not have jurisdiction” to automatically get involved.
SBI investigated Johnson’s case, and Stein’s office declined to charge Borom or any other officers who reported to the scene of the crime. Stein said in a statement that the officers faced a “deadly threat and acted reasonably in response” when Johnson was having a mental health crisis.
Iwanski says police officers have inordinate power to stop a thorough investigation into their behavior simply by saying they were “in fear for their lives,” as he believes happened in Johnson’s case.
“Attorney General Stein believes that regardless of where a criminal investigation leads, we should always ask whether anything could have been done differently that may have resulted in a better outcome, including by conducting sentinel event reviews,” Stein’s press secretary wrote in an email to Capital B.
Greggs says there are a litany of legal obstacles on the books that prevents accountability and transparency of law enforcement, such as needing a subpoena to receive a police officer’s personnel records, needing a judge’s order to release body-camera footage, and not allowing parties involved in civil lawsuits to discuss certain details of the case in public, as Iwanski has been barred from doing. She questions why the General Assembly hasn’t budged with using its powers to reform legislation to remove those statutes that prevent police accountability.
Iwanski was able to give his own account of what happened to Johnson because he, his wife, and great-granddaughter witnessed the incident themselves.
“It is racism, because I defended her. They knocked me down, but they didn’t shoot me,” said Iwanski, who is white.
Correction: Jada Elizabeth Johnson was killed by a police officer in her grandfather’s home in 2022. An earlier version of this story misidentified the location.
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