Three weeks after Zachary Hammond was shot and killed by police in a drug bust in a Hardee’s parking lot in South Carolina, federal officials have launched a civil rights investigation into his death.
Hammond’s death fit the profile of many other officer-involved shootings that have made headlines this year. He was said to be unarmed and was initially approached by police for a relatively minor offense — possession of a small amount of marijuana.
But Hammond was also white, and his parents have wondered if that fact might explain why their son’s death didn’t initially provoke the same outrage as similar shootings involving African Americans.
The federal investigation, announced Wednesday, involves the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the FBI office in Columbia, S.C., and the U.S. Attorney for South Carolina and will run parallel to the state’s own investigation, according to the Charleston Post and Courier.
The news came the same day that Hammond’s parents held a news conference pleading for prosecutors and the state law enforcement division to release dashboard camera footage that might illuminate the circumstances that led to their son’s death.
“I hope it shows us some answers to what happened that night,” Paul Hammond, the teen’s father, told reporters. “… We need some kind of closure ourselves. Right now it is so difficult to move on without having answers.”
Ronnie Richter, one of the Hammonds’ attorneys, said that authorities should release the footage quickly, as they did in the April killing of Walter Scott, who was shot in the back by a North Charleston police officer while fleeing a traffic stop. (That dashcam footage was released only after a bystander video of the shooting emerged).
The dashcam footage “took away all the speculation and guesswork about what happened,” Richter told the Post and Courier.
Hammond, who was 19, was on a first date the night of the July 26 shooting. His date, 23-year-old Toni Morton, was eating an ice cream cone. Then Seneca, S.C., police officers converged on their car, reportedly because they knew that Morton carried drugs (she was later charged with simple possession of 10 grams of marijuana).
Then, somehow, two shots were fired into the car, killing Hammond.
What exactly transpired between the officers’ arrival and the moment of Hammond’s death is unclear. Seneca police, Hammond’s family and the officer involved have given confusing, conflicting accounts of the incident. Without video footage, it’s difficult to tell whose is accurate.
The initial report from Seneca Police made no mention of shots being fired. But after the name of the officer involved, Lt. Mark Tiller, was released last Friday, they released a report from a different officer describing the incident as “attempted murder.” That report did not explain the events that led to the shooting or why Tiller felt threatened.
According to a statement from Tiller’s attorney, the 10-year police veteran had approached Hammond and asked him to put up his hands up when the teenager suddenly reversed his car.
“Mr. Hammond then rapidly accelerated in the direction of Lieutenant Tiller, forcing the lieutenant to push off of Mr. Hammond’s car to keep from being struck and run over,” the statement read. “In order to stop the continuing threat to himself and the general public, two shots were fired by Lieutenant Tiller in quick succession.”
The statement added that a white powdery substance “consistent with cocaine” was found on Hammond’s body.
Last week, Hammond’s family released the results of an independent autopsy, which found that their son had been shot twice in the back. The second shot, which pierced his heart and lungs, was fatal, it said.
An autopsy conducted by the Oconee County Coroner’s Office did not specify from which direction the bullets hit Hammond’s body. Officially, Hammond’s death has been classified as a homicide.
Just 24 hours before the Justice Department announced its investigation on Wednesday, attorneys for the Hammonds had released a statement calling on the federal government to “intervene.”
“While many other recent events have involved white on black police shootings, police brutality and the excessive use of force are race neutral issues,” the statement read, according to Greenville NBC affiliate WYFF. “The Hammond family hopes and trusts that the United States Justice Department will investigate the death of their son with the same intensity and thoroughness as it has demonstrated in other interracial settings. Every death of an unarmed teen, regardless of color, strips a piece of our dignity and humanity as a society.”