THERE'S NO chance a story finds a happy ending when a man lies dead on the ground with a bullet in his head.

That's the cold, unavoidable truth at the heart of every homicide investigation that unfolds in this city, whether a trigger was pulled by someone settling a drug dispute or by a cop struggling with a suspect.

What families of victims strive for instead is justice and truth, words and concepts that have become controversial - and harder to define - whenever someone dies as a result of a police-involved shooting.

Cops have their side of the story, relatives of victims have theirs. The space in between is increasingly filled by a wide mix of people who bring heated rhetoric to the discussion, especially on social media.

All of these dynamics will be on display tonight at Philly After Ferguson, a town-hall meeting in Powelton that organizers say will focus on "policing, politics and perceptions."

Philly's most recent police-involved fatality promises to take center stage.

Brandon Tate-Brown, 26, died Dec. 15 after an officer shot him during a traffic stop in Mayfair. Investigators say Tate-Brown violently struggled with the officers and reached for a stolen handgun inside his car, prompting one officer to open fire.

But his mother says police have refused to give her even basic information about the incident - and in fact, never even alerted her to it. Tanya Brown-Dickerson, a school bus driver, said she learned of her son's death from a morning TV newscast, when she spotted his car in the swirling red-and-blue lights of a crime scene.

Activists have been quick to fan the flames of a mother's rage, leading marches at least weekly and filling social media with hashtags like #WhoKilledBrandonTateBrown and fliers depicting Philly officers as wolves.

"We're not going to stop calling out these racist police officers. I want to push them into hell as fast as I can," said activist Asa Khalif, Brown-Dickerson's cousin and founder of Racial Unity USA.

A week after Tate-Brown's death, someone spray-painted graffiti on a fence and buildings in West Philly, including the phrases "Cop lives don't matter," "f--- cops" and "PPD killed Brandon Tate-Brown."

Police Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross said he's recently been on several panels to address police and community relations, and found civil conversations hard to come by.

"I've absolutely been torn to pieces because of the uniform I'm wearing," he said.

"You want to understand where people are coming from, but that requires folks to really listen," Ross said.

"You can't just decide . . . you either hate the police or love the police, and everything you do is framed from there."

People who have neutral viewpoints are largely drowned out by the voices of those who vehemently oppose or support cops, he said.

In the wake of the controversial police-involved deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., every police-involved shooting has become suspect in the eyes of activists looking to expose systemic problems, according to one expert.

Transparency is key, said Robert Kane, professor and department chairman of Drexel University's Criminology and Justice Studies Department.

"Police departments do themselves a lot of damage when they circle the wagons and allow an activist public to begin controlling the conversation and essentially trying the police in the public realm," said Kane, author of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department and The Oxford Handbook of Police and Policing.

That's not to say that all activists are wrong.

But who knows who's right, when so many questions remain unanswered?

Violent struggle

The day before he died, Tate-Brown spent a few hours playing football with friends and then watched the Eagles lose, 38-27, to the Cowboys. He went out with friends afterward, heading home again about 2:30 a.m.

About 2:40 a.m., police pulled him over on Frankford Avenue near Magee, about two miles from home.

What happened next depends on who's recounting the details.

Lt. John Stanford, a police spokesman, said two officers stopped Tate-Brown because he was driving with his headlights off.

The officers approached the car and asked Tate-Brown for paperwork, some of which, Stanford said, didn't match the car he was driving.

"They continued to speak with him, and then one officer spots a gun in the center console area of the vehicle, and asks him to exit the vehicle."

Stanford said the cops attempted to handcuff Tate-Brown after he got out of the car, but a violent struggle ensued, spilling from the driver's side of the car to the passenger side.

"He knocked one officer to the ground, and the other officer followed [Tate-Brown] to the passenger side," Stanford said.

"As he gets inside the passenger side of the car and reaches for the gun, the other officer fired at him, striking him in the side of the head."

Stanford said a loaded .22-caliber Taurus handgun was found in the car. The weapon was reported stolen in July 2013.

The encounter was recorded by a nearby surveillance camera. But Stanford said the footage can't be released because it is evidence in an active investigation and is being reviewed by the District Attorney's Office.

'Driving while black'

Tate-Brown's family disputes the Police Department's version of the events.

His mother instead accuses the officers of targeting him for "driving while black," because he was at the wheel of a new car - a 2014 white Dodge Charger with Florida plates he'd gotten from the car-rental agency where he worked - in a mostly white neighborhood.

Further, TV news footage shot minutes after the shooting shows the Charger's headlights on.

Tate-Brown's supporters also question the police's contention that there was a "struggle."

"There was a gun shop, a bank, a hair salon all along there. The police came and seized all the [surveillance] tapes," Khalif said. "You don't have to show me or any other activist the tape. Show the mother the tape," he said. "If the tape exonerates the police officers, then we'll accept that. What does the Philadelphia Police Department have to hide?"

Further, Brown-Dickerson doesn't believe police found a gun in her son's car, suggesting that the weapon could have been planted, given that other police officers have been accused of planting evidence in past cases.

Tate-Brown was sentenced in 2008 to five years in prison on aggravated-assault charges, but his family said he had since turned his life around.

Others have seized on the exact location of Tate-Brown's bullet wound - either it was on the side of his head, or toward the back - as evidence of wrong-doing.

"A plain-old routine stop caused my son to be no longer here," Brown-Dickerson said.

More than anything else, Brown-Dickerson said, she wants to see the surveillance tapes of the incident.

"I am his mother. Show me. Shut me up if I am so wrong," she said. "You are not supposed to be above the law. If you want us to respect your authority, respect mine and my rights as a citizen."

Ross said "a lot of misinformation" has been circulated about the case.

He also said the department's leaders are having conversations about improving how frequently police officials communicate with relatives of those killed in officer-involved shootings.

"They have the right to get answers," Ross said. "You are dealing with the loss of a life. It's a major thing. That person has a mother or a father, a husband or a wife, a son or a daughter."

The deputy commissioner said he's reached out to colleagues in other police departments to see if some have found a better way to handle similar situations.

"I don't profess to think that we have this down completely, but I've been calling around to different places, and I can't seem to find anyone who does something different," he said.

More transparency

Kelvyn Anderson, the executive director of the civilian-run Police Advisory Commission, said his agency has tried to get information on the Tate-Brown case, but found it "shrouded in secrecy."

"It's useful to know specifics about the officers who were involved, so that maybe we can look at doing more training," he said. "We also need to know the history of the [victim] involved.

"All of those things are relevant to our understanding of what took place."

Stanford said the Police Department moved quickly to release information about Tate-Brown's death.

"People want answers immediately," he said. "We put information out that same morning. I don't know how much faster we can be."

Kane, the Drexel professor, said staying mum about a case is partly police investigative strategy.

"One reason they turn inward is to conduct an investigation as thoroughly and impartially as possible without feeling the squeeze of public discontent and public pressure."

A bigger reason: fear of lawsuits, Kane said.

"Everything they do and say will become discoverable in the civil liability that the family will inevitably file against them for wrongful death," he said. "There is an enormous civil-liability issue here for the police. The police commissioner feels it, the mayor feels it."

In fact, police lawsuits cost the city millions every year. The Daily News found last year that Philly paid out $14 million to settle civil-rights claims alone in 2013 - nearly four times as much as the $4.2 million just five years earlier.

Still, Kane said, "they're going to end up paying regardless of what happens . . . so I don't see what would be wrong with talking a little bit more openly with the public."

Fewer shootings

Data show that efforts to reduce violent police encounters with citizens may be working.

Although Philly police have shot at 391 people - injuring or killing 288 - since 2007, police-involved shootings have been falling since 2012, police data show.

Of 29 people police shot at last year, four died, 18 were injured and seven survived unharmed. That's down from 43 in 2013 (11 fatal) and 59 in 2012 (16 fatal), according to police data.

So far this year, police have shot at two suspects; neither was injured, said Officer Christine O'Brien, a police spokeswoman.

Still, Brown-Dickerson insists race results in disparate treatment.

On Dec. 22, a drunken, white man shot at police outside McGeehan's Rock Bottom Bar in Holmesburg - but ended up in handcuffs instead of a coffin.

Police were there investigating a shooting when the man arrived with one handgun jammed in his waistband and another in his hand. He pointed a gun at officers, initially refused to drop it and even popped off a round. Police disarmed him after a struggle without returning gunfire.

"The system is designed to put black men in jail or 6 feet under," Brown-Dickerson said.

Ross and Stanford, both of whom are African-American, are sensitive to the racial jabs that get thrown at the department, and sometimes at them personally.

Ross said he's been stopped by police in the past, an experience he found "unnerving" even though he was cooperative - and had the added advantage of being a cop.

He said he understands the anger of people who have had negative run-ins with police, but is mystified by those who rail against the department even though they haven't ever had an encounter with a cop.

"We're not perfect. We have a long way to go, but we are making strides," Ross said, noting the department recently launched a pilot program for body cameras.

But the department is hurt by a steady stream of negative headlines; just last week, two officers were charged by a local grand jury with brutally beating a man in 2013 without cause, and then arresting him on phony charges.

"We'd be fooling ourselves if we said we're the greatest thing since sliced bread," Stanford said. "But every cop who works in Philadelphia is not corrupt."

One thing's certain: The conversation is far from finished.

On Twitter: @dgambacorta