Brandon Tate-Brown, 26, was just trying to make it home in the early-morning hours of Dec. 15 when police officers pulled him over for allegedly driving without his headlights in Philadelphia’s Mayfair district.
By the end of that encounter, Tate-Brown would be dead—a bullet piercing the back of his head—and his mother, Tanya Brown, would be left heartbroken, searching for answers.
“Brandon was a beautiful and spirited young man,” Brown told me quietly during a phone call Thursday evening. “All he wanted was to laugh and have fun. He didn’t want to die. He was no thug or gangsta, whatever they’re trying to call him. My son had so much love in him, so much joy.”
“He would never be confrontational with police,” Brown said, her voice gaining strength. “Never.”
Police officers tell a different story.
They claim that after officers approached and saw a handgun in the center console of the white Dodge Charger that Tate-Brown was driving, they asked him to get out of the car. After he complied, a struggle allegedly ensued that caused Tate-Brown to run back toward the car to get the weapon, a .22-caliber handgun with eight live rounds that had allegedly been reported stolen in July of last year.
At that point, the story becomes all too familiar: The officer allegedly felt threatened; and even though Tate-Brown was out of the car, police opened fire, shooting Tate-Brown in the back of the head.
Tanya Brown’s oldest child was pronounced dead at the scene at 3:05 a.m.—approximately 15 minutes after being pulled over.
“Why did they find it necessary to shoot him in the back of the head?” she asked, the hurt and disbelief evident in her voice. “His face was horrific. But I believe in God. And I’m grateful that I got to see my son’s face. I told the funeral director not to put him in any makeup because I needed to see his face. I needed to see what they did to him.
“Those were bruises and scrapes,” Brown continued. “Not a hit and fall on your face, not none of that. They never gave him a chance.”
After a long pause, Brown said, “They had no intention on letting my son live.”
Even though we talked about the indignity of having to prove that black lives matter—that police don’t have the right to kill with impunity and that mothers and fathers shouldn’t have to posthumously defend their children from being revictimized in the court of public opinion—Brown still wanted to make it clear what kind of man her son was.
Tate-Brown was arrested in June 2007 on charges of attempted murder, aggravated assault and carrying a firearm without a license, reports Philly.com. After pleading guilty to the lesser charge of aggravated assault, he served five years in prison and was released in October 2012. While in prison, he earned his GED diploma and told his mother that upon his release, he wanted to go to community college as a way to help children not end up in prison like he did.
But, according to Brown, her son never should have been there in the first place.
“A man beat Brandon’s then-girlfriend and hit her in the face with a pipe,” said Brown. “Brandon couldn’t take that. His father used to beat me, and he knows that because I shared it with him. I told him, ‘Never put your hands on a woman,’ so he felt he had to do what he did.
“He knew it was wrong,” said Brown of the incident. “He told the judge he was wrong, and Brandon’s old teachers wrote letters saying what a good person he was. Regardless of what they say, my son wasn’t a thug. He did what he felt he had to do in that situation, and he learned from it.”
Upon his release, Tate-Brown got a job working at a fast-food restaurant. He eventually signed on with a temp agency and worked odd jobs here and there before being hired to work at Hertz car rental. He had only been employed there a few months before he was killed.
Brown shared Facebook videos of her son participating in the ALS ice-bucket challenge in September—partaking, in part, to show solidarity with those fighting against police brutality—and reading poetry that she says reflects his magnetic and lovable personality.
“You can look at his social media posts,” said Brown. “He was happy with his life, thanking God for his blessings and excited about his future. Eight days before he was killed, my son had just moved into a new apartment. Something’s not adding up.”
Distraught friends and family on social media all question the police version of events. They insist that if Tate-Brown had a gun, it still doesn’t make sense that he would leave it out where police could see it, then peacefully exit the car before getting into a struggle that would cause him to turn and run for the weapon. His mother said that he was on the phone with a friend who heard him tell police, “This car is from my job, you can call my manager … ” before the call ended.
So, what happened in the last minutes of Tate-Brown’s life? Why did police assume he was going back for the gun, and most important, why did they shoot him in the back of the head?
Both Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Police Capt. George Fuchs have referenced the .22 in Tate-Brown’s car—as if the weapon alone stands as indictment, judge, jury and executioner—but Brown said that being in possession of a weapon while on parole should have meant her son went to jail, not the morgue.
“What rights do black women and men have in America?” she asked. “That the police can say, ‘Even though his back was to me, I feel threatened.’ They never said my son had a gun in his hand, so I don’t care if there was a gun,” Brown said, her voice rising in anger and pain.
“There was no excuse for this,” she said, her voice booming now. “My oldest child, my firstborn. I have to put away his clothes like he never existed because it hurts too much to look at them. I have a death certificate that says my son no longer exists. And this officer gets to go home and pillow-talk with his significant other and sleep and call it justifiable. It’s not justifiable; it’s disgusting.”
Both officers who were involved in Tate-Brown’s shooting, neither of whom has been named, joined the force in May 2013. The officer who pulled the trigger was placed on administrative duty, while his partner was taken to the hospital for observation after the shooting because of “stress.”
According to NBC Philadelphia, this is the 26th officer-involved shooting so far this year in the city, and the fourth one to be fatal.