The mother of a Gastonia man shot to death by a Concord police officer during an attempted February car theft has sued in federal court, claiming that the officer broke the law when he shot her unarmed son multiple times, called in the incident, then opened fire again.
Brandon Combs, 29, died later that day at a Concord hospital. He had been shot five times while behind the wheel of Officer Timothy Larson’s police SUV, the family’s attorneys say.
The new complaint, filed Tuesday in Charlotte federal court by attorneys for Virginia Tayara, accuses Larson and the City of Concord of excessive force, assault and battery, wrongful and intentional death and gross negligence.
Atlanta attorney Harry Daniels told The Charlotte Observer on Tuesday that the complaint seeks “some form of justice for the Combs family.”
“We can’t expect real justice because we cannot go back in time to stop what happened,” Daniels said in a phone interview prior to a scheduled 11 a.m. news conference in front of the uptown federal courthouse.
He also said the family hopes the civil complaint will “jump start some criminal charge or indictment” against Larson.
“Police officers cannot be judge, jury and executioner. That’s why we have a criminal justice system. That’s why we have the rule of law,” Daniels said.
Larson, who was later fired by his department, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. His attorney, Chris McCartan of Concord, did not respond to an Observer email seeking a response.
A spokeswoman for the City of Concord also did not respond to an Observer email seeking comment.
Combs’ death remains under investigation by the Cabarrus County District Attorney’s Office, which has had the findings of a probe by the State Bureau of Investigation since June.
In February, Concord police said Larson had shot Combs, 29, following an early morning “physical altercation” at the Modern Nissan car dealership.
Daniels said the truth of what happened is captured on Larson’s body-camera video, which he and the other family attorneys have seen but it has not been released to the public. The details, however, are included in the complaint.
According to the lawsuit, Larson answered a burglary call at the dealership at 5 a.m. on Feb. 13 and discovered Combs trying to steal a Nissan pickup truck. After Larson stepped away from the pickup, Combs opened the driver’s side door he had locked and fled.
He ran to Larson’s patrol car and climbed in behind the wheel. The car was not moving. Larson, who stood at the passenger-side fender, fired five shots through the windshield, according to the complaint. He then called in the shooting to the police department dispatchers, then fired again.
Larson did not go to Combs’ aid, the lawsuit claims. Combs was alive when other officers arrived and removed him from the car, according to the complaint. He died an hour later at Atrium Health Cabarrus.
Larson, 27, later told the other officers at the scene that he shot Combs because he was trying to steal his SUV.
According to documents received from an Observer public records request to the City of Concord, Larson was fired May 20. He had been on the job for about two years when the shooting occurred.
In Larson’s termination letter, police Chief Gary Gacek cited his former officer for insubordination for refusing to answer questions following the shooting and for giving misleading or untrue answers in other instances to his superiors and the State Bureau of Investigation, which handled the shooting investigation. It’s unclear from the letter if the events surrounding the shooting were discussed.
Daniels, who represented the family of Andre Brown following his 2021 shooting death by deputies in Elizabeth City, has called the Combs footage one of the worst police-shooting videos he has ever seen.
“We didn’t know anything until we saw (the video). We watched it in utter disbelief,” Daniels said.
“The most disturbing thing is not the unjustified use of deadly force, but that (Larson) paused and then used deadly force again. The first five shots were bad enough. The last shot was overkill, man. It was overkill. I can’t make sense of it.”
In a statement included with the release of Larson’s personnel file in June, Concord Police said they continue to cooperate with all sides of the investigation, including the family’s lawyers.
“We understand how difficult this time is for the Combs family, and we want to ensure they receive the answers they need to heal following the death of their loved one.”
Police use of deadly force
In North Carolina and every other state, police officers are justified in using deadly force if they have a reasonable belief that they, their fellow officers or the public is in imminent risk of death or serious injuries.
The law is written around a landmark Supreme Court case, Graham v. Connor, which originated in Charlotte.
Every year, police fatally shoot about 1,000 people, a number that has remained largely unchanged despite widespread police reforms following the deaths of George Floyd and others, according to the Washington Post, which has tracked officer shootings for the past five years.
Both Combs and Larson are white.
Prosecutions of cops for on-duty shootings are rare; convictions even more so.
Under the Concord Police Department’s use of force policy, officers are banned from shooting into vehicles unless they or others are being targeted by “deadly physical force” other than a vehicle, or “the moving vehicle poses an imminent and ongoing threat of substantial physical harm to the officer or another person from which there is no reasonable means to escape.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1985 case of Tennessee v. Garner that officers cannot use deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect unless they are placed in imminent danger.
“It is no doubt unfortunate when a suspect who is in sight escapes,” Justice Byron White wrote in the ruling, which is excerpted in the lawsuit.
“But the fact that the police arrive a little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the suspect. A police officer may not seized an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead.”