Justice Department Will Investigate Zachary Hammond's Police Shooting Death

The 19-year-old's parents say an officer unlawfully killed their son.
Family Photo

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday it will join the investigation into the death of Zachary Hammond, the unarmed 19-year-old shot to death inside a car by a Seneca, South Carolina, police officer last month.

The FBI, the U.S. Attorney for South Carolina and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division all are involved in the probe, which will “run parallel to the state’s investigation,” the department said in a statement.

The development “should be good for all parties involved,” Ronnie Richter, an attorney for Hammond’s parents, told The Post and Courier of Charleston.

Hammond was in the parking lot of a Hardee's on July 26 when Lt. Mike Tiller fatally shot him, according to a police account. Tiller was providing support to an undercover officer, who intended to buy marijuana from a passenger in Hammond's car. Tiller said he approached the vehicle and ordered Hammond to show his hands, but Hammond instead accelerated toward him.

Tiller fired two shots at close range into the open driver's side window, according to police. One bullet struck Hammond in the rear left shoulder. The other, to Hammond's left side, was fatal.

Hammond was unarmed. His passenger was booked for misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

Eric Bland, an attorney for the Hammond family, has repeatedly said the location of Hammond's wounds proves the shooting was unlawful.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division has been reviewing the case, and Tiller has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

The Justice Department's announcement came hours after Hammond's parents held a news conference in downtown Seneca, where they called on state authorities to release a police cruiser dashcam video that may have recorded the shooting. Local news outlets also have requested the footage.

“I hope it shows us some answers to what happened,” said Hammond's father, Paul Hammond. “We need some kind of closure ourselves. Right now it is so difficult to move on without having answers.”

Bland and Richter on Tuesday released a statement on behalf of the Hammond family calling on federal authorities to"intervene" in the state investigation because of the "substantial violations of [Hammond's] civil rights and the need for a transparent and independent investigation of the Seneca Police Department’s policies, procedures and practices."

The lawyers also called on the Justice Department to give Hammond's death the same scrutiny given to other cases involving white officers and black suspects. Tiller and Hammond both are white.

Bland has criticized what he sees as a lack of nationwide media coverage of Hammond's case, saying it would have attracted more attention if Hammond hadn't been white. The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post, among other news outlets, picked up the story last week following substantial outrage on Twitter, largely from supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Some have pointed out that Hammond's case differs from other prominent police killings of the past year in that there has been no publicly released video. Furthermore, the mostly white town of Seneca lacks the backdrop of tension between the community and law enforcement that serves as essential context to the issues of race and policing that have captivated the nation in the year since the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

While there have been no large demonstrations of Hammond's killing, about 50 people attended a candlelight vigil on Friday night. Black nonviolence activist Jack Logan, of Greenville, South Carolina, has scheduled a "rally for justice" for Hammond for Aug. 15 in downtown Seneca.