CHARLOTTE — Before he became known as the police officer who fatally shot a black man, sparking days of protests in North Carolina’s largest city, friends knew Brent Vinson as someone who naturally ascended into leadership, a former college football player with a peacemaker’s heart.
The son of a police officer, Vinson’s future now hangs in the balance as authorities determine whether he was justified in killing Keith Lamont Scott on Sept. 20.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Dustin Allman, who was video coordinator on the football team at Liberty University, where Vinson played defense. “There’s no hate in this guy.”
The 26-year-old Vinson, who is also black, is on administrative leave as officials review the death of Scott, 43. Police have said Scott was armed with a pistol and refused to drop it when Vinson opened fire in the parking lot of an apartment complex where Vinson and another officer had gone to serve an arrest warrant.
While video of the shooting shows only a glimpse of Vinson, the crack of four gunshots is plain. The officer hasn’t commented publicly, but police have said in a statement that Vinson “perceived Mr. Scott’s actions and movements as an imminent physical threat to himself and the other officers” when he fired.
Bryce Laguer, 26, said he attended high school in Charlotte with Vinson and has known him about 12 years. He described Vinson as a person who was taught moral principles by his parents and applied them even as a teenager by “debugging” conflicts at school before they escalated.
“There are very few men who I have met who can balance toughness and tenderness,” Laguer said. “Brent Vinson is that man.”
Vinson’s official biography on the football website at Liberty, a Christian university, describes a fast, physical player who excelled on the field and was valued for his team leadership. He was elected captain by his teammates, an honor that Allman said goes only to the “cream of the crop.”
“He just had this humility about it,” said Allman, who now pastors a church in Kingsport, Tennessee. “People really just gravitated to him. He was a very friendly guy.”
Vinson majored in criminal justice, setting the stage for a life in law enforcement like his dad Alex Vinson, who retired from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department as a sergeant about a decade ago.
Brent Vinson was hired in July 2014 at a starting salary of about $42,000, records show. He was being paid around $53,000 annually and worked on a plainclothes detail that targeted crime hotspots at the time of the shooting, the police department said. Laguer said Vinson is married. Police records show he hasn’t been the subject of any disciplinary actions.
While demonstrators have alleged police racism since Scott’s shooting death, Allman said Vinson got along well with blacks and whites and never showed any signs of prejudice or hot-headedness against anyone.
“Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. But what if the blue life is a black man?” Allman said.
The president of the local NAACP chapter, Corine Mack, said black officers often feel pressured to adopt the attitudes of the police force, to somehow set aside their racial identity when they put on their uniform.
“They feel they have to conform,” Mack said.
Laguer, who said he has spoken with Vinson since the shooting, described the officer as being too principled to do anything he didn’t believe was right.
“There are few people who you come across in life with principles, the intent to follow through with things that matter, and the sensitivity that requires,” said Laguer. “He’s one of them.”