In the predawn hours of January 24, 2013, a police officer in Fayetteville, North Carolina, shot and killed a 22-year-old resident named Nijza Lamar Hagans, who had been pulled over for running a red light and making “several furtive driving maneuvers such as darting onto a neighborhood street and into a driveway,” according to a memo by Cumberland County’s district attorney, Billy West. The police officer, Aaron Hunt, then 24, claimed that, peering into the SUV Hagans was driving, he saw Hagans reach aggressively for a gun in his pants pocket as he opened his car door.
“Officer Hunt fired his weapon after observing Mr. Hagans reaching for the gun and exiting the vehicle and turning toward Officer Hunt,” wrote West in his memo (embedded below), which concluded that Hunt’s response was “lawful and measured.”
Yet the report absolving Hunt, who is Native American and is still a police officer in Fayetteville, did not mention the existence of video from the dashboard camera in Hunt’s cruiser, which shows a more troubling unfolding of events.
The footage — which the city has withheld from public release but was provided to The Intercept by a source who requested anonymity — shows Officer Hunt shooting at Hagans a split-second after Hagans begins thrusting open his car door and while Hagans is still largely in his vehicle. Hunt shoots at Hagans, who is black, twice more as he exits the vehicle. The video then shows Hagans running away from Officer Hunt, who, instead of pursuing him, shoots at Hagans twice as he flees. Just after these final shots, Hagans stumbles to the ground where he died.
While many elements of the video corroborate the state’s outline of events, the circumstances surrounding the most disturbing moment in the footage — the last two shots — were wholly elided in District Attorney West’s report that cleared Hunt.
The district attorney’s memo appears to rely heavily on Hunt’s account of events and also omits a key finding from the state medical examiner’s report: two of the four bullets that hit Hagans entered through his back and rear shoulder. These bullets pierced Hagans’ lungs; one of them went on to rupture Hagans’ aorta, the body’s main artery, just above his heart, according to the autopsy findings, which The Intercept obtained through a records request. Instead, West quoted only the phrase “multiple gunshot wounds to the chest” from the medical examiner’s report to explain the cause of death.
District Attorney West declined to comment on the case. In response to a list of questions, the Fayetteville Police Department provided The Intercept with West’s report, but, citing pending litigation and confidentiality of personnel records, provided little additional comment.
The emergence of Officer Hunt’s dash-cam video comes in the context of a series of police shootings of black men that have become national political events, sparking protests across the country and igniting a nationwide discussion about race, inequality and policing tactics. Footage taken at shooting scenes has factored heavily into some cases. In April, for instance, a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, was charged with murder after The New York Times obtained footage of the white officer shooting Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man, in the back as he ran away.
Because he carried a loaded .380 caliber pistol, according to police, Hagans posed a genuine potential threat to Hunt, whereas the unarmed Scott had posed no such danger to the police officer who shot him. The dashboard camera does not offer a vantage point that shows whether or not Hagans, who had a record of violent crimes, reached for a gun before being shot, and it appears that Hagans’ car door hits Hunt as it swings open.
Yet the footage of Hagans’ shooting raises a number of questions about the lethal use of force by police and the quality of information released to the public about the hundreds of fatal shootings each year for which police officers are cleared.
Under North Carolina law, video from police dashboard cameras can be withheld from public disclosure, and the city of Fayetteville has fought vigorously in recent weeks for a court order to keep the Hagans video under wraps after “inadvertently” disclosing it — without a court order mandating it stay secret from the public — to lawyers for Hagans’ family, which is suing Hunt and the city. In a letter filed in federal court, an attorney for the city states, with some alarm, that the family’s legal team has disseminated the video among experts for review, and warns that public release of the video could have “ethical implications which can easily be avoided.” In another letter, the attorney invokes a state law in arguing that the video is privileged material.
The lawsuit filed by Hagans’ family against the city of Fayetteville and Hunt contends that Hagans’ killing was both wrongful and a violation of his civil rights. It also lodges a detailed critique of the city’s recent record of racial bias in policing, much of which the city’s attorneys deny. The attorneys for Hagans’ family declined requests to comment for this story.
The Fayetteville Police Department has a history of its officers disproportionately targeting black citizens for traffic stops. Some of these traffic stops have turned fatal. Fayetteville’s police chief, Harold Medlock, who has drawn some praise from civil rights advocates since he assumed his post two years ago, requested that the U.S. Department of Justice review his police department. The DOJ review, which is ongoing, is looking at the use of force by Fayetteville police officers and the investigations that the police department conducts into those incidents.
During a traffic stop that took place just months after Hagans’ shooting, a Fayetteville police officer shot a black man named Lawrence Graham III after he allegedly displayed a gun. The shooting left Graham paralyzed, and he died two months later. Earlier this month, Graham’s family filed a wrongful death suit against the city of Fayetteville.
As in the Hagans case, District Attorney West reportedly concluded that Graham’s shooting was a “lawful and measured response” to a perceived threat. And, also as in the Hagans case, the city has refused to release dashboard camera footage that allegedly shows the shooting. Last month, Police Chief Medlock said that he supported the public release of all police footage that could clear certain hurdles relating to privacy and legal concerns.
“I think it would give the public, our citizens, a better feel for exactly what our officers do out there every day and every night,” Medlock told The Fayetteville Observer. The police chief’s enlightened public position, however, did not stop the city from attempting to block the release of the video taken from Hunt’s dash-cam.
Medlock has vowed to improve the policing tactics of the city’s department, and he has so far achieved some positive, if mixed, results, according to Ian Mance, a staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who has studied racial bias in traffic stops in North Carolina.
“Racial disparities in traffic stops has been a hot button issue in Fayetteville for years and even led to the resignation of the City Manager in 2012,” Mance said in an email. “The city’s police chief left office that same year and was later replaced by a chief [Medlock] who de-emphasized the sort of low-level regulatory stops and discretionary searches that were contributing to community mistrust.”
Mance says that although this shift was well-received and has reduced the sheer number of police stops, “the racial enforcement disparities have persisted.”
District Attorney West’s concluding report states that after noticing the butt of a pistol protruding from Hagans’ pants pocket, Hunt ordered Hagans to place his hands on the steering wheel multiple times. Hagans complied but dropped his hands back down to his pocket twice, the report states. Hagans lowered his hands for a third time in an “aggressive” manner and he thrust his door open, according to the report.
Lacking qualifiers to signal attribution of facts, the portion of West’s report that details Hunt’s conversation with Hagans reads authoritatively as a fully corroborated blow-by-blow of the interaction. “Mr. Hagans offered explanations for his actions that did not make sense,” the report asserts at one point. West’s memo even quotes Hunt, seemingly verbatim, as asking Hagans, “You’re telling me I’m not looking at a gun in your pocket?”
Yet during the brief conversation with Hagans, Officer Hunt’s body microphone had been turned off, as he admits in the video, and only seems to have been activated after the shooting. It might be hard to tell by reading West’s report, but the official description of the conversation appears to come purely from Hunt’s account, and says nothing of the inactive microphone. West’s report also does not mention that Hagans collapsed a significant distance from his vehicle.
The dashboard camera footage from Hunt’s cruiser shows that for several minutes after the shooting, Hunt stands still with his gun trained on Hagans. As he does this, several other police, some carrying assault rifles, arrive and also point their guns at Hagans. More than five minutes after Hagans fell to the ground, the video shows, officers finally lowered their guns, apparently determining the motionless Hagans not to be a threat. West’s report states that officers recovered a .380 caliber pistol from under Hagans’ body.
The microphone then captures Hunt, clearly shaken, recounting the incident to a police official. Hunt tells the woman that he saw the Ford Explorer roll through a red light and then make a series of turns that indicated that Hagans did not want to be followed by a police car. Hunt then tells the story that would be repeated in West’s report of struggling to get Hagans to keep his hands on the steering wheel.
“The only thing is, it happened so quick, I didn’t get to turn my mic on,” Hunt says. “I wish I would have had my mic on because it was perfect, you know, because I told him: keep your hands on the wheel, hands on the wheel.”
The official advises him not to talk to anyone else and tells him that the State Bureau of Investigation will interview him about the shooting. “We’ll get you through this,” she tells Hunt.
The video shows that it took 15 minutes after Hagans’ shooting for paramedics to arrive at the scene. In the suit against Fayetteville, Hagans’ family has argued that the police officers neglected to ensure proper medical attention for Hagans, an allegation that the city’s attorneys deny. “Hunt and several other Fayetteville police officers who had rushed to the scene after the shooting deliberately withheld medical care, attention, and treatment from Nijza,” the family states in court records, “and allowed him to die in the exact same location and bodily position where his body had fallen after being shot.”
The lawsuit against Hunt and the city alleges that, by the time of the shooting, Hunt had already acquired a record of using excessive force. “Within the first two years of his employment with the Fayetteville Police Department, Defendant Hunt became the subject of multiple complaints accusing him of using excessive force against the citizens of Fayetteville, not only with his hands, but also with at least one of his police department-issued weapons,” the complaint states. “Upon information and belief, Hunt has never been disciplined for any of these incidents.”
In a response filed in court, lawyers for the city denied these claims.
The lawsuit also alleges that Hunt was never disciplined by the police department for shooting Hagans, a claim which the city’s lawyers admit.
West’s report states that when he was shot, Hagans was on parole for assault with a deadly weapon and burglary charges, crimes for which he had spent “approximately five and a half years” in prison. West’s report states that at the time of the shooting, Hagans was under investigation for an armed robbery, and that police found ski masks in the back of the car Hagans was driving. West also noted that 30 plastic packets of crack cocaine were found in Hagans’ sock. Just weeks before the shooting, Hagans had been arrested for assaulting a woman, according to West’s report.
In comments to The Fayetteville Observer, Hagans’ father, Reggie Hagans, said that his son had been working to get his life back in order. Hagans’ father said that his son had earned a G.E.D. while in prison, where he had also been developing vocational skills. After his release, Hagans worked at a car wash, but was laid off, according to the news report.
Shortly after the shooting, Hagans’ father said that if Hagans had a gun on him that morning, it could have been the motivation for him to flee.
“If he’d been caught with the gun, he would’ve gone back [to prison],” Hagans’ father told The Observer. “That’s one reason I know he was running.”