Video of Fayetteville police shooting may play crucial role in civil rights suit
Posted May 14, 2015
Updated May 15, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — Dashcam video shared with WRAL News provides a clearer picture of the fatal shooting of a black man by a Fayetteville police officer during a traffic stop two years ago – an incident that is now the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit.
An SBI investigation shows Nijza Hagans, 22, had a gun when Officer Aaron Hunt pulled him over around 6 a.m. on Jan. 24, 2013. Following the investigation, the Cumberland County district attorney determined Hunt, an American Indian, fired in self defense.
Hagans' family disagrees, and filed suit calling the shooting an unjustified, wrongful killing.
The case comes amid a rash of fatal police shootings across the country that have made national headlines, raised questions about the use of force by law enforcement and sparked protests by those concerned about how authorities police minority communities.
Dash cam video shows confrontation
Video captured from the dashboard camera of Hunt's patrol car and provided last week to WRAL News by an anonymous source shows Hunt stopped Hagans while he was driving an SUV on a dead-end street in a residential Fayetteville neighborhood. Hunt would later tell his supervisor that he saw the vehicle run a red light and that "something just didn't seem right."
For two minutes, the video shows, Hunt questioned Hagans. That audio was not captured by the officer's body microphone. Hunt told his supervisor he didn't activate the microphone because he hadn't expected to make a traffic stop.
As Hunt stood nearby, Hagans burst out of the vehicle, and, within five seconds, Hunt fired five shots, striking Hagans four times. Two of those shots hit Hagans in back as he fled, and he slumped to the ground yards from his vehicle.
Hunt then called for back-up.
After more officers arrived, he turned on his microphone and warned them Hagans was armed.
The video captured Hunt telling his supervisor he could see the butt of a gun hanging out of Hagans' pocket when he stood next to the vehicle.
He said that led to a tense verbal confrontation.
"I said, 'Dude, what do you have in your pocket?' And he said, 'Nothing man, nothing,' and he takes his hands off [the wheel] and I scream at him again, 'Dude keep your hands on the wheel!'" Hunt told his supervisor in the video.
No charges for officer
Fayetteville city attorneys declined to discuss the case, citing pending litigation, but Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West released a July 5, 2013, memo summarizing the SBI investigation into the shooting. It is standard procedure for local police to ask the SBI to investigate any time a law enforcement officer is involved in a shooting.
The memo says officers recovered a .380-caliber pistol with one round in the chamber and a magazine loaded with seven rounds of ammunition from under Hagans' body. He died before paramedics arrived.
The district attorney decided not to file criminal charges against Hunt.
"Officer Hunt stated that he felt his life was threatened by Mr. Hagans' actions," the memo reads. "It is our conclusion that Officer Hunt fired his weapon in self defense and as a matter of last resort."
In an interview Friday, Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock called the stop a tragedy.
"That was a horrible incident for both the individual who's deceased and our officer," Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock said. "Because no matter what, no matter how justified, how lawful that kind of use of force is, it still cost a human being his life."
In the lawsuit, the family says Hagans did not "pose a threat, brandish, reach for, hold or otherwise threaten to use a weapon of any kind."
The suit also claims the Fayetteville Police Department has a history of racial profiling and excessive force. The suit includes statistics showing black drivers were three times more likely than whites to be searched by officers following a traffic stop.
Hagans' family attorneys also cite eight cases since 2005 in which suspects were either severely injured or killed by officers.
'They make split-second decisions'
Wellington Scott, a retired Highway Patrol lieutenant colonel, trains officers through his company, the International Academy of Public Safety. Scott declined to discuss the video or cast judgment on it.
But he said generally, a confrontation between an officer and a member of the public changes drastically if an officer sees a weapon.
"Law enforcement is always at a disadvantage in that type of setting where they're armed and you have no idea what their intent is," Scott said.
He said the presence of a weapon matters even when a suspect is running away.
"The officer doesn't know if that person is going to run and shoot or if that person is running to gain cover and shoot back," Scott said.
Officers are forced to make decisions in the blink of an eye, Scott said, and their first priority is to protect themselves.
"Law enforcement officers, they have a very tough job," Scott said. "They have to make split-second decisions."
Federal lawsuit moves forward
In its court response, the city paints Hagans as the aggressor and says Hunt rightfully defended himself.
Hagans, who was on parole at the time of the traffic stop, had been released from prison several months earlier after serving more than five years for felony convictions of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, first-degree burglary and robbery with a dangerous weapon. About two weeks before he was killed, he was arrested for assault on a female and several other charges, and the district attorney said he was under investigation for an armed robbery and aggravated assault.
An autopsy report showed Hagans was found with a bag of white powder that the district attorney said was 6 grams of crack cocaine.
It's unlikely Hunt knew any of that before the confrontation. He is still an officer with the Fayetteville Police Department.
Last week, Fayetteville city attorneys filed a motion to prevent parties in the lawsuit from releasing or publicly discussing the traffic stop video. Although that motion hasn't been approved by a judge, Hagans family attorney William Richardson declined to discuss the video or the case on camera.