Drug War

Shooting of Unarmed 19-Year-Old Highlights the Drug War's Depravity

A sting involving 10 grams of marijuana leads to a senseless death.

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Hammond family

Last Friday the Seneca, South Carolina, police department identified Lt. Mark Tiller as the officer who shot and killed 19-year-old Zachary Hammond in a Hardee's parking lot on July 26. Hammond, who was unarmed, was on his first date with 23-year-old Tori Morton, who was eating an ice cream cone in the front passenger seat of his car at the moment of the shooting. Morton was later charged with possessing 10 grams of marijuana. According to The New York Times, police had targeted her as part of "a sting operation." The Washington Post says "undercover agents set up the drug buy."

Tiller claims he fired two shots in self-defense through the driver's side window because Hammond was trying to run him down. But an autopsy commissioned by Hammond's family found that one bullet entered his left shoulder from behind while the other entered his chest from the side—wounds that the family's lawyer, Eric Bland, says are inconsistent with Tiller's story, which he calls "ridiculous" and "offensive." Police say they have dashcam video of the encounter, which might help clarify the facts, but they have not released it yet.

Bland complains that the shooting of Hammond, who was white, has not received the same sort of national attention as incidents in which unarmed black men were killed by police. "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," Bland told The Washington Post last week. "The hypocrisy that has been shown toward this is really disconcerting."

Bland may have a point, but to me the main lesson to be learned from this utterly senseless incident has to do with the depravity of the war on drugs. Even if we assume that Tiller is telling the truth and that he reasonably believed lethal force was necessary to avoid death or serious injury, this entire situation was created by the cops. Hammond and Morton were minding their own business when Tiller initiated the use of force because of a pending transaction involving a third of an ounce of marijuana, a drug that is legal for medical or recreational use in 23 states. Furthermore, it was the police who arranged the transaction to begin with, in an attempt to catch Morton doing something that shouldn't be treated as a crime because it violates no one's rights. That's what a drug sting is: a trumped-up version of a fake crime.

Whether or not the shooting is deemed to be legally justified, it is outrageous that a young man is dead for such a stupid reason. Maybe this incident will wake up more Americans to the reality of the war on drugs, which uses violence to stop people from getting high and therefore constantly risks outcomes like this. Or maybe not. Here is how one Hardee's customer reacted to the shooting: "We're so thankful here in Oconee County that our police departments and sheriffs and things like that, that they're on top of the drug problems and trying to eliminate all drugs and everything."