How should we view our country when it condemns a certain substance as a Schedule I narcotic, yet the only deaths that come from it are caused by the same people that are supposed to be protecting us from it?
On July 26, a South Carolina police officer named Mark Tiller shot and killed an unarmed teenager for allegedly having marijuana in his car mid-day in a restaurant parking lot. On October 27, state prosecutors decided the officer will not face any criminal charges, and released video footage of the incident, which the police department had denied to the press for months despite the Freedom of Information Act.
Officer Tiller was reportedly tipped by another police officer that a car in a Hardees parking lot had marijuana in it and intended to sell it. As the video shows, his vehicle pulled up behind the car. In what should have been a routine traffic stop, the officer rushed out of his car with his gun pointed at the driver, and, within five seconds of leaving his vehicle, let out two fatal shots at point blank range from the driver's side window, milliseconds after yelling "I'm gonna shoot your fucking ass," as the car did not yield to his instructions of stopping. Chrissy Adams, the 10th Circuit Solicitor who made the decision not to file charges against Tiller, claimed he was justified in his actions as he reacted in self-defense; that his life was in danger from being run-over by the teen, 19-year old Zachary Hammond. The suspect’s family responded by filing a federal petition, claiming Adams not fit to fairly judge the case because of her close relationship with the police department causing a conflict of interest.
Tiller was put on paid administrative leave and will not face any kind of consequence for his killing. Rather, he was praised by the City of Seneca's Administrator as a hero. Hammond's family, understandably upset by the decision and sworn to seek “justice” for their son, has filed a civil lawsuit. The case is currently being investigated at the federal level with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the FBI Columbia Field Office, and the U.S. Attorney for South Carolina. Watch video footage below.
Like countless others that have voiced their opinions of the incident as depicted in the video and through witness accounts, I feel extremely uneasy about what happened and how it’s been handled by local law enforcement and investigators. The video clearly contradicts Adams' conclusion. The officer’s decision to shoot was not in self-defense: He rushes to get in front of the vehicle, forcing himself into the trajectory of the vehicle. Not only is this totally against police protocol that suggests officers stay at the side of their vehicle, but it violates all kinds of common sense. Police protocol also suggests that officers only draw their guns if the suspect is armed or a danger to life. But Hammond was certainly not a threat to the officers or anyone else around, Tiller was positioned at the side of the vehicle, and he came in hot, gun drawn and screaming. Not in front of the car, but on the side of it. Tiller forced himself into the course of the car. Last time I looked, vehicles go North and South; unless Hammond was driving a revolutionary car that allowed his wheels to turn at a 90-degree angle, I'm not buying it. But alas, it was just a Honda.
Police chief John Covington repeated in his statements that Tiller’s actions were a response to “attempted murder.” But who looks like the murderer in the video? This defense is absurd; it's the equivalent of walking onto train tracks and blaming the train for taking your life. Tiller’s reaction did not take place in self-defense and his excuse is childish. It happened because the officer was not seeing his power being yielded to by a kid. Tiller's reaction to shoot was merely because the teen decided to disregard his demands, not because his life was in danger; this is crystal clear from the video - he was trying to run away from the officer, not run him over. This is verified by the Oconee County coroner, who ruled Hammond’s death a homicide – he was shot once in the back and once in the side.
It was Hammond who feared for his life. When you look to your side and see a big guy sprinting toward you with a gun pointed straight at you, I think fleeing is a natural reaction any life form would exhibit, particularly an adolescent human being. We've all seen car chases; if you want to prevent a car from running away, the first thing you do is take its tires out. As close as Tiller was, this was a painfully easy task that any "veteran" of law enforcement should be able to do. If our tax dollars don't appropriately prepare officers for real-life situations, where do they go? The doughnut fund? We shouldn't have to settle for repeatedly sloppy police work that results in hundreds of unwarranted deaths across the nation.
You know how after you do something you know is morally wrong, but you're stuck with what you did so you stubbornly continue to justify it despite anyone giving a shit because they know you're wrong? That's Tiller in this situation. After shooting the kid, Tiller repeatedly says "he tried to hit me" to the undercover officer. If you know you did the right thing you don't do that.
There's a lot that feels wrong with this case and the resulting decision. What were the police really doing there in the first place?
This whole debacle started when, according to the police department whose officer killed Hammond (so take this with a boulder-sized grain of salt), officers were tipped off to there being marijuana in Hammond’s car after his passenger, 23-year old Tori Morton, "accidentally" sent a text message to a highway patrol officer, who then forwarded this information to the Seneca Police Department, who sent Tiller to the scene. On top of the absurdity of not only sending a text to a completely unknown number on accident, but that number happening to belong to a police offer, I find it awfully suspicious that there was an undercover officer parked adjacent to Hammond's car. It seems to me more that the undercover officer was staking out at the Hardees for whatever reason and noticed a couple young people rolling up marijuana in the car next to him, prompting him to call in a dressed officer.
Although she had the closest encounter, Morton’s report of the event has been misconstrued for a while. Her account as reported by the police, which paints her as a clueless bystander opposed to Hammond’s actions, is significantly different from her account in a sworn affidavit. The police report can read in the SLED document at the end of this article. In other dashcam videos of the incident that have been released, Morton is clearly devastated. If you read her account in the SLED document, you’d think there’s no way that what she said is actually coming from her. In the affidavit, however, she says that after the shooting, the officers surrounded the car, repeated yelled “where’s the gun, there’s the gun?” and “dragged” them out of the vehicle. This account is much more believable as the truth coming from the passenger of a car whose driver was just murdered:
"It happened within seconds with no warning.
"The car was never in park pulling into the Hardee’s parking spot. That’s why the officer put it in park after the handcuffs were put on me,
"I watched them take the gun from the officer that killed Zach and move it from car to car as they were in and out of the trunks of each car present. I was unhandcuffed given a cigarette and place in the alley behind the Hardee’s alone for a long time and remained on the scene for hours. Taken away and brought back multiple times before my arrest."
According to a witness, after Hammond was shot dead, officers went to the trunk of a police vehicle, removed an object and placed it under Hammond’s body. The witness also stated “After Zachary had been shot and killed, members of the Seneca Police Department lifted his dead hand and 'high-fived’ Zachary Hammond.”
The dots just don't connect. There were definitely ulterior motives at play here at the state level, let's hope federal investigators conduct a truly independent analysis of the case. There’s a significant portion of the main dash video that is skipped through around the last minute mark of the video, and the audio just happens to go out half-way as well. I read the report, deceivingly put at 200+ pages. Many of the attachments, including supposed images of texts from Morton’s phone, were not in the document.
As an American, the fact that investigators came to the conclusion they did despite how wrong it was, upsets me and makes it hard for me to buy into a legal system that again and again shows how flawed it is and how little “justice” is provided. As a consumer of marijuana, this just adds to the list of countless reasons in the case for the decriminalization of marijuana in the U.S. According to the FBI, a marijuana arrest is made every 42 seconds. Some of them become deadly, as we just saw. And then you wonder why paranoia is a "side-effect" of marijuana.
Full text of the decision, via SLED: