Were Zachary Hammond's Civil Rights Violated?

by Alicia Lu

The scenario is a familiar one: An unarmed young man was shot and killed by police for a relatively minor offense. It sounds like a headline we've seen dozens of times in the last year. One distinct difference in the case of Zachary Hammond, however, is that he was white. On Thursday, the Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation into Hammond's death. Aside from Hammond's race, the circumstances are identical to the many cases that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has become widely viewed as the modern civil rights movement. But Hammond's case is a reminder that civil rights are universal.

On July 26, Hammond was reportedly on a first date when he was approached by Seneca Police Lt. Mark Tiller in the parking lot of a Hardee's in Arden, South Carolina. According to a police report, Tiller was offering assistance to an undercover cop who was going to purchase marijuana from Hammond's date, Tori Morton. According to Tiller's account, when he asked Hammond to show his hands, the 19-year-old instead allegedly accelerated his vehicle towards the officer. Although a police report later revealed that Tiller fired two shots through the driver-side window, killing Hammond, Tiller's original account did not mention this detail. Seneca police have maintained that Tiller acted in self defense. According to CNN, the lieutenant's lawyer said, "If not for Lt. Tiller's quick reflexes and his ability to push off the car, Lt. Tiller would have easily been run over by Mr. Hammond."

The Department of Justice, along with the FBI, the U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, are now investigating the lawfulness of Tiller's shooting, and reviewing dashcam footage of the incident.

It seems natural, given the national scrutiny over fatal police shootings, that Lt. Tiller's actions would spark outrage. But instead, the shooting has prompted little reaction, and the story has been relatively buried for three weeks. The lack of public response has angered and saddened Hammond's family, who believe that his race is the reason. Eric Bland, the family's attorney, issued a statement to The Washington Post addressing the issue:

It’s sad, but I think the reason is, unfortunately, the media and our government officials have treated the death of an unarmed white teenager differently than they would have if this were a death of an unarmed black teen. The hypocrisy that has been shown toward this is really disconcerting. The issue should never be what is the color of the victim. The issue should be: Why was an unarmed teen gunned down in a situation where deadly force was not even justified?

Bland's reasoning overlooks the fact that police violence disproportionately affects the black community. According to a Mother Jones report that cited data from the Centers for Disease Control, between 1968 and 2011, black people were on average 4.2 times more likely to be shot and killed by police officers than white people. However, Bland does make an important point: Civil rights should guarantee everyone equal protection under the law.

Merriam-Webster defines "civil rights" as "the nonpolitical rights of a citizen" and "the rights that every person should have regardless of his or her sex, race, or religion." And according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, civil rights include:

  • Freedom of speech
  • The right to vote
  • Due process of law
  • Equal protection of the laws
  • Protection from unlawful discrimination

Firing upon someone who does not pose a threat — disregarding due process of law — could constitute a civil rights violation in itself, but the added factor of racial discrimination certainly makes it more difficult to dispute. In Hammond's case, race did not play a role, but Tiller's actions are enough to warrant a civil rights investigation.

On Wednesday, Hammond's parents gave a press conference urging law enforcement to release dashcam footage of the shooting. Zachary's father, Paul Hammond, told reporters:

I hope it shows us some answers to what happened that night ... We need some kind of closure ourselves. Right now it is so difficult to move on without having answers.