Today, the parking lot of the International House of Pancakes in the 6200 block of Duke Street looks like any other. Customers file in and out of the diner day and night, and its late hours made it appealing to night owls and restless teenagers. On a frigid February morning last year, 18-year-old Springfield resident Aaron Brown was fatally shot by an off-duty police officer in this parking lot — an accident that has forever changed the lives of those involved. The tragedy brought television trucks and police officials to the scene, followed by an extensive investigation, an order of suspension for the officer and ultimately several changes to police policy.
Now, more than a year after the shooting, the city government has agreed to pay the family of the slain teenager $1.1 million in damages in a mediated settlement.
"No amount of money could be adequate to replace our son," the Brown family said in a written statement dated June 14. "We intend to use this settlement to honor his memory in a variety of ways, including the local chapter of Guitars Not Guns which we helped to start. This organization teaches music to deprived youngsters, and we believe it is something our son as a musician would very much have wanted to be part of."
From the outset of the incident, the transparency of the investigation was challenged. Although Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel issued a 52-page report on Virginia laws governing criminal liability, the Police Department refused to release the in-depth analysis of the officer’s actions. When Police Officer Carl Stowe was suspended, the department declined to describe the punishment, limiting the portrayal of his suspension to a range of three to 30 days. Although Police Chief David Baker was not in charge of the department when the incident occurred, he later made two policy changes in an effort to clarify the boundaries of police officers.
"We don’t think that the policies contributed to the tragedy," said Lt. Jamie Bartlett, spokesman for the department. "But we felt it needed to be clearer what officers should do in these circumstances."
THE SHOOTING happened shortly after 3 a.m. on Feb. 25 when Alexandria Police Officer Stowe was providing security at the West End diner. Although he was off duty at the time, Stowe was wearing an official police uniform and working under the police department’s procedures allowing police to moonlight as an added source of income. According to Sengel’s report, the off-duty officer walked into the parking lot after being informed that a group of teenagers left without paying their bill.
Forensic evidence indicated that Stowe fired six shots at a 1995 Jeep Cherokee that was careening through the parking lot. The third bullet ripped through Brown’s heart, killing him on the scene. Brown was riding as a passenger in the car. The fatal shot was fired at an angle that was perpendicular to the vehicle, indicating that the officer was not in the path of the vehicle when he fired his police-issued Glock. Sengel concluded that the officer’s actions were tragic and unintended, but not criminal.
"While Stowe was not in the path of the Jeep at the instant he fired the shot which killed Brown, the forensic evidence of the case and scientific studies of human reaction time established that Stowe could not reasonably have been expected to have reacted differently and stopped firing before he fired the fatal shot," wrote Sengel in the conclusion of his investigation. "He was placed in a position of reasonable apprehension of death or serious injury by the subsequent actions of the driver of the jeep, and he was entitled to defend himself."
Earlier this year, Alexandria Police Department officials announced a change in department policies and training procedures as a result of Brown’s death. In a January press release, the department explained that the new policy "prohibits officers from moving into, standing in front of or remaining in the path of a moving vehicle for any reason, expect when conducing routine traffic control and direction." The policy governing shooting at moving vehicles was also amended, prohibiting officers from doing so "except as a last resort in the most extreme and exceptional circumstances when necessary to avoid the immediate and clearly foreseeable danger of death or serious injury to police officers or other individuals."
"Police Chief David Baker has instituted policy changes to make it clear that officers should not fire their weapons at moving vehicles," wrote City Manager Jim Hartmann in a written statement announcing the $1.1 million settlement. "We believe this will help prevent anything like this from occurring again."
WRONGFUL DEATH settlements can be emotionally draining for the participants, yet carefully crafted laws lend the proceedings a sense of mathematical reliability. Legal concepts like "solace" are given a mathematical estimation as attorneys negotiate the value of a human life. Other categories of monetary awards include sorrow, mental anguish, medical expenses, funeral expenses and compensation for reasonably expected loss of income. Trial attorneys who specialize in this kind of work use actuary tables that calculate predicted salary levels that are adjusted for inflation and life expectancy.
"The easy numbers are the medical bills and the funeral expenses," said Thomas Curcio, a member of the board of governors of Virginia Trial Lawyers Association. "The other numbers are more difficult in terms of placing value on. But, as a lawyer, you put on evidence to show how close the family members were to give a jury a sense of what the loss is."
According to Jim Lay, Stowe’s attorney, the officer was "devastated" by the tragic events of that cold February morning when the off-duty officer accidentally killed an innocent man.
"The Brown family will never be the same. Officer Stowe will never the same," said Lay. "And no amount of money is ever going to fix that."