A federal investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been launched into the shooting death of unarmed teenager Zachary Hammond by a Seneca (South Carolina) Police officer, officials say. According to a statement from the DOJ itself, it will run its investigation parallel with that of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
The Greenville News reported August 12 that federal agencies are “actively engaged” in a civil rights investigation, according to Bill Nettles, U.S. Attorney for South Carolina. He said the investigation was ongoing alongside the SLED and local investigations.
Although the Justice Department noted that their investigation would run parallel with the SLED investigation, they would not provide further commentary on the investigation.
The DOJ announcement of involvement came just a day after lawyers for Zachary Hammond’s family, Bland Richter, released a statement where they had contacted the Justice Department and asked the federal authorities to look into the death of the unarmed teenager. Although Seneca Police maintain that the officer involved shot the teen because he feared for his life, the family contends that the circumstances not only did not warrant such use of force but that the young man’s death did not occur in the manner in which the officer said it did.
Eric Bland, of Bland Richter, seemed to inject a racial element into the request in the statement released Tuesday. After noting that the family had confidence in SLED and Solicitor Chrissy Adams, Bland went on say that “the issues that surround the death of Zachary Hammond are issues of national significance.”
“While many other recent events have involved white on black police shootings, police brutality and the excessive use of force are race neutral issues,” Bland stated (per 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.”
Bland said Wednesday, according to The Greenville News, that the Hammond family was “encouraged” by the federal response. “The family feels that somebody is finally paying attention to the death of their son. We wrote them a very detailed request yesterday setting forth violations that we numbered in the teens of civil rights violations and within 24 hours this investigation was opened.”
Even though the story got some national exposure on CNN, the New York Times, and other major networks, it has been slow to gain national attention. Bland has made mention that race has played a part in the lack of exposure, according to Huffington Post. It has been pointed out, though, that the attention the Zachary Hammond story has gained was mostly due to social media outrage propagated by #BlackLivesMatter.
Zachary Hammond, 19, was shot twice on the night of July 26 by Seneca Police officer Lt. Mark Tiller. Tiller claimed that Hammond, during a drug sting in a Hardees parking lot, aimed his vehicle at him and drove toward him. Seneca Police Chief John Covington backed Tiller’s statement in an incident report, according to the New York Times, that described Tiller as the “victim” of “attempted murder.” Zachary Hammond’s family contends that two separate autopsies show that the teen’s shooting through his open car window indicated that Officer Tiller shot the teen from behind and could not have been in a position where he would have feared for his life, as he has claimed.