South Carolina — The Free Thought Project has been covering the murder of 19-year-old Zachary Hammond by Officer Mark Tiller since the incident occurred on July 26th. Three weeks ago the heartbreaking dashcam video was finally released, which shows a maniacal Tiller ruthlessly take the life of this teenager over a suspected bag of weed.
According to the Post and Courier, “the Hammond case was far from unusual” in South Carolina.
A campus cop at Spartanburg Methodist College shot to death an unarmed college student driving a car—including twice in the head—after responding to a report of a vehicle break-in. Of course, the cop claims that 20-year-old Delvin Simmons was trying to run him over, but there is no bodycam or dashcam video to refute that claim.
The Post and Courier found that South Carolina is set to break its current record of police shootings, and that 1 in 4 shootings involved officers who fired at moving vehicles. Criminal justice experts say this practice is “ineffective and risky to officers and bystanders.”
The paper’s investigation, titled Shots Fired: Mining lessons from tragedy, looked into the use of deadly force by the state’s police officers and how they learn from these encounters.
What they found was that the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) and the Criminal Justice Academy do literally nothing to learn from past mistakes. For instance, there was no evaluation of the case of Walter Scott to glean lessons in avoiding the use of deadly force, even though Officer Michael Slager was charged with murder.
“They don’t want to admit mistakes,” said Philip M. Stinson, a former police officer who is a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “In some agencies there is an erroneous perception that if they were to discuss and learn from mistakes, any advancement would be viewed as an admission of guilt that could result in civil liability.”
Decades-old tactics of escalation and use of deadly force are firmly entrenched in police training,
“A survey that Wexler’s group recently completed showed the continuing emphasis placed on force over persuasion. Among the 281 police agencies that responded, the average number of basic training hours devoted to firearms was 58, compared to eight hours spent on de-escalation techniques and 10 hours on communication skills.”
The paper contrasts this to typical European approaches of law enforcement that emphasize keeping their distance, buying time and de-escalating the situation.
However, learning de-escalation tactics is an “elective” course for cops training at the academies. Instructor John McMahan sums up the extent of South Carolina’s current police training programs:
“Our main job is basic handgun fundamentals. Really all we are trying to do is to get them to where they can draw from a holster, site a line and pull the trigger.”
This was certainly on display when Mark Tiller so callously took the life of Zach Hammond.
Stinson, the criminologist and former cop, is taking aim at the unwillingness of police departments to learn from past incidents in order to reduce the violence being carried out upon he citizenry.
“It’s not second-guessing to say, ‘What can we do in the future to prevent these shootings from happening?’ That’s not second-guessing. That’s taking advantage of good policy and practice,” said Stinson.
As Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, points out, police shootings say a lot about “the training officers receive and the policies their departments adhere to.”
“So much attention is placed on the oversight issue, which is important, but you really have to look upstream at the policies and training that are in place,” said Wexler.
Instead of desperate attempts to blame victims, bystanders taking video, or journalists helping to expose police brutality, it’s time for law enforcement to take the blinders off and study their past actions.
After the Post and Courier exposed South Carolina law enforcement’s penchant for deadly force and shooting into moving vehicles, SLED chief Mark Keel is announcing they will change their ways.
He wants the Criminal Justice Academy “to start reviewing these cases and start looking for lessons learned, good and bad.” Keel says he is looking at policies and training practices in other states and may take specific actions next year.
They should not limit their research to other states in the U.S., as the ready use of brutality and deadly force is standard operating procedure across the country.
Time will tell if these announcements bring meaningful change, or if they are mere lip service to the increased scrutiny.