Colleague Kills D.C. Officer Outside Club
By Avis Thomas-Lester and Maria Elena Fernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 19, 1998; Page A1 An off-duty D.C. police officer shot and killed another off-duty D.C. officer early yesterday during a confrontation outside a Northwest Washington nightclub that may have started with a dispute with a nightclub patron over a parking space.
Three other people also were wounded, one seriously, police said, during the 12:30 a.m. shootings outside The Club, a popular nightspot at 1213 K St. NW.
Despite conflicting accounts from police and others yesterday, this much was clear: When the shooting stopped, 3rd District patrol officer Thomas F. Hamlette Jr., 24, who had been on the force for 1 1/2 years and whose father was part-owner of the club, was dead, and 4th District patrol officer William F. Hyatt Jr., 28, a six-year member of the force, was on administrative leave, which is routine, pending an investigation of the shootings.
"People were screaming that a guy had a gun," Oti Ikomi said yesterday from Howard University Hospital, where he was recovering from a gunshot wound in his back. "I just [fled] with the crowd. After I took about 10 steps, I heard gunshots. There were like six gunshots, and my eye was like burning or something. Then, I realized I was shot."
Ikomi, a 20-year-old Nigerian, said that he went to The Club for the first time Friday night to celebrate a friend's birthday but that he never got inside.
Police initially said the dispute started when a security guard tried to remove an unruly patron from the nightclub and Hamlette came to the guard's assistance. At some point, police said in a statement, Hamlette "produced his service weapon, and a struggle ensued. It was at this time that the weapon was discharged."
Later yesterday, however, police said they no longer believed that was how the incident began and weren't sure how it started. But officials at a news conference yesterday did agree that Hyatt was waiting in line to enter the club when the argument began outside and Hamlette's gun went off.
Hyatt, they said, identified himself three times as a police officer and ordered Hamlette to drop his weapon. When Hamlette turned toward Hyatt, the weapon still in his hand, Hyatt fired several rounds, striking Hamlette, police said.
Hamlette was pronounced dead a short time later at George Washington University Medical Center. Police said a security guard, whom a source identified as Jonathan Felton, and another man they would not identify received minor gunshot wounds that did not require hospitalization.
Both officers had police-issued, semiautomatic Glock pistols, and it was unclear yesterday, pending ballistics tests, whose bullets struck whom.
Hamlette, who was single, was the son of Thomas F. Hamlette, who retired from the D.C. police department in 1988, and the brother of 1st District Lt. Pamela Simms, whose husband was killed in 1996 when he was struck by a truck during a traffic stop.
Hyatt's father, Bill, is assigned to the 5th District as a crime scene search officer.
Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey visited Hamlette's family and later visited Hyatt and his family. "He's distraught, he's taking it very hard," Ramsey said.
"What compounds the tragedy is that it involves two officers and two law enforcement families," Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer said at the news conference. "This is a tragic set of circumstances no one feels good about."
Officers reporting to work yesterday were stunned to hear of the death. They put black tape across their badges in a traditional sign of grief, and flags at the police stations were at half-staff.
Police officials also said they are concerned that there may be repercussions from the shooting because Hamlette was black and Hyatt is white. Hamlette's death was the second incident in three years in which a black officer was killed by a white officer as a result of "friendly fire."
Seventh District motorcycle officer James Madison McGee, 26, was fatally shot Feb. 7, 1995, in Southeast Washington by police officer Michael A. Baker. McGee, off-duty and in civilian clothes, was detaining a robbery suspect at gunpoint when Baker and another officer on patrol mistook him for a bandit, ordered him to drop the gun and then shot him when McGee turned toward them with a weapon in his hand.
"We are sensitive to [possible racial implications of the shooting], but in this case, the only color of relevance is that both people involved are blue," Gainer said in an interview.
Gainer said a preliminary investigation indicated that Hyatt's actions were justified because Hamlette failed to put down his gun. Gainer said at least three or four witnesses substantiated Hyatt's account of the incident and corroborated his statement that Hamlette failed to identify himself as a police officer.
"During Officer Hamlette's struggle with either one or two people, his gun discharged," Gainer said. "We're not sure if he fired intentionally or [if] it was accidental. We do know that Officer Hyatt observed the scuffle, saw the shooting" and shot Hamlette when he failed to heed warnings to drop his gun.
Hyatt was given a Breathalyzer test after the shooting, and no alcohol was detected, Ramsey said last night.
Two other descriptions of the shootings were offered yesterday, one by Hamlette's boyhood friend, John Carter, who said the officer was assisting the club's bouncers and never had a chance to identify himself as a police officer, and another by a friend of Ikomi's, who said Hamlette pulled his service pistol during a dispute over a parking space.
Ikomi's friend, whose name could not be learned yesterday, said it was his argument with Hamlette that sparked the sequence of events that led to the shootings.
"He kept saying [the parking space] was reserved," Ikomi's friend said. "He pulled out the gun and shot it once, but I grabbed his hand and [the bullet] didn't hit me. Then he shot again. ... He never said he was an officer."
Gainer said yesterday that police are investigating the parking space dispute as a possible motive for the shooting but that the report has not been substantiated by all the witnesses.
Carter, who was at the club with Hamlette, said that Hyatt never identified himself as a police officer and that Hamlette was not holding a gun when Hyatt began firing.
"Tommy's gun fell or something," Carter said. "Tommy didn't have a chance to say he was a cop."
"The white cop saw the gun and just started shooting," Carter said.
Police said The Club, which opened eight years ago, had not previously caused any problems for patrol officers. The slain officer's family members said yesterday that they plan to close it.
Police departments have strict guidelines under which officers are permitted to draw and fire their weapons.
"There's no indication [Hyatt] operated outside department policy," Ramsey said.
William O. Ritchie, who spent nine years as a homicide detective and supervisor investigating officer-involved shootings, said proper procedure permits officers to shoot suspects only when they appear to be menacing residents.
Hamlette "should have lowered the gun or dropped the gun," Ritchie said. "He should have immediately given the universal [secret] signal indicating he was a police officer."
Ramsey said at an afternoon roll call for 3rd District officers that Hamlette gave no such signal. But later, the chief said that there often isn't time to give a signal and that "nothing is foolproof."
"This is a tragic situation," said Detective Frank Tracy, president of the labor committee of the police union. "Since the last shooting, we've seen the need to do something so there is some way for officers to be identified by other officers if there is an incident that requires them to draw their gun off-duty. We've talked about maybe having officers given radios to carry with them, so they could keep up with what's happening on the street, be able to call for backup and help identify them as police."
Staff writers Steven Gray, Cheryl W. Thompson and Allan Lengel contributed to this report.
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