A veteran Republican state senator has joined the call for Attorney General Alan Wilson to reopen the case of a teen shot to death by Seneca police in July, saying video of the incident doesn’t appear to support the officer’s claim of self-defense.
Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort said he was troubled by the 10th Circuit Solicitor Chrissy Adams’ decision last month to pass on criminal charges against the Seneca officer who fatally shot 19-year-old Zachary Hammond during a drug sting.
Adams has said Lt. Mark Tiller’s actions were justified because he feared he would be run down by Hammond’s fleeing car.
But Davis said dashboard video of the incident, which shows Tiller alongside Hammond’s vehicle, doesn’t seem to back up that story.
“I don’t know how anyone watching that video can conclude that the individual in the car was trying to hit the officer or that the officer couldn’t get out of the way,” Davis said. “I just don’t see it.”
Davis and colleague Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican who chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, said the case should trigger a wider state discussion about police tactics and training, as well as whether local prosecutors should sit in judgement on shooting cases involving officers whose departments they work with every day.
A federal investigation of the Hammond case is underway, Davis said, but Wilson also has jurisdiction and his involvement would offer an opportunity for South Carolina “to take care of its own business.” His statements echo those of Democratic Rep. Todd Rutherford, the House minority leader, who last week also called on Wilson to reopen the case. Rutherford said he too saw no evidence Tiller’s life was in danger.
Mark Powell, a spokesman for Wilson, said the attorney general has received no formal request to intervene in the case. He declined to comment further.
Adams could not be reached Thursday but she told The Greenville News last week that she would not object to the attorney general’s involvement if the Legislature as a whole supports such a request.
Debate over the Hammond case comes amid a near-record year for police-involved shootings in South Carolina. In the third such shooting this week, Aiken County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a 57-year-old man during a domestic violence incident Wednesday night. The incident marked the 44th officer-involved shooting this year, two shy of the record set in 2012.
State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel told The Post and Courier earlier this week that it’s time for the state to review shooting cases for possible lessons, improve training and refine police tactics to reduce future bloodshed.
The need for that course of action was a key finding in the newspaper’s recent “Shots Fired” series, which uncovered a pattern of officers firing into moving vehicles, a practice that criminal justice experts say is ineffective and risky to officers and bystanders.
Martin said he was pleased to see Keel pushing for improved training. Martin said efforts should be made to not only better train rookies, but to continue re-training officers at all levels to make sure they are up to date on the latest police practices. Their lives and the lives of others may someday depend on it, he said.
“It’s so critically important,” he said. “If the funding is not there, then we need to address that. ... You are either going to pay for the training or pay for the mistakes that come from a lack of training.”
Davis said a wider discussion over tactics also might be in order following Hammond’s death and the April killing of 50-year-old Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer. Hammond died in a sting targeting a small amount of marijuana. Scott was shot from behind while running from a police officer he had tussled with after a traffic stop. The officer, Michael Slager, now faces a murder charge.
“Should Walter Scott have run away? No? Should this kid have driven away? No. But that is no justification for them being shot and killed,” Davis said.
Davis said he was deeply concerned that authorities sat on the police video in the Hammond case for three months before releasing it to the public. He said legislation may be in order to prevent officials from withholding such footage in the future because it is of vital interest to the public.
The Seneca shooting is far from the first time this has happened. In fact, the State Law Enforcement Division and North Augusta police officials still refuse to release video footage from a February 2014 incident in which an officer fatally shot 68-year-old Ernest Satterwhite in his car after the two reportedly struggled in Satterwhite’s driveway. The officer in question, Justin Craven, is awaiting trial on charges of misconduct in office and discharging a weapon into an occupied vehicle.
Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, said it should be standard practice for the state to immediately release all video footage from police-involved shooting incidents so the public can know what occurred and whether charges are appropriate.
“It ensures fairness,” he said. “It’s a matter of faith in the police.”
The importance of such footage was driven home during the Scott shooting, when a bystander’s video helped discount the officer’s version that he fired in self-defense, Rogers said. “If that kid had not come along with his video camera, an entirely different narrative would have prevailed,” he said. Davis said the state also should discuss whether it is appropriate for local prosecutors who work hand-in-glove with police to sit in judgement on law enforcement officers from their jurisdiction. Perhaps it would be better to refer such cases to the attorney general or bring in an outside prosecutor to avoid any appearance of a conflict, he said.
Adams resisted calls to recuse herself from the Hammond case, and the attorney general has argued against efforts to require a blanket rule forcing local prosecutors to step aside on cases involving officers in their jurisdictions. The attorney general’s office has a long-standing practice of allowing local solicitors to make the call on deferring to an outside prosecutor.
Martin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said he is open to discussing legislation that would require an outside prosecutor in officer-involved shooting cases. This could be similar to the current police practice of calling in SLED to investigate those shootings to ensure an independent probe, he said.
“I am strong supporter of law enforcement, but by the same token there needs to be a good understanding that there is no conflict when a case like this is under investigation,” Martin said.