FBI Director James Comey says cops are reluctant to do their jobs because they worry that their actions will be captured on camera. Judging from the official response to the shooting of Zachary Hammond, they have little to fear.
Speaking at the University of Chicago Law School in October, Comey said police officers "in today's YouTube world" are afraid to get out of their cars, lest they face camera-wielding bystanders intent on recording them. He warned that good policing could "drift away from us in the age of viral videos" as cops refrain from confronting suspicious characters.
"I spoke to officers privately in one big-city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars," Comey said. "I've been told about a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video."
You might wonder what exactly cops would do if they were sure they were not being recorded, or why they are so worried that practices Comey thinks are essential to public safety would be fodder for viral videos. But the truth is that cops rarely face serious consequences even when they star in videos that appall the average YouTube viewer.
To understand why, consider the exoneration of the police officer who shot and killed Hammond, an unarmed 19-year-old, in Seneca, South Carolina, on July 27. Three months later, 10th Circuit Solicitor Chrissy Adams said Lt. Mark Tiller was justified in using lethal force because Hammond was trying to run him over. But that is not what the dashcam video of the encounter seems to show.
Police planned to arrest Hammond's date, 23-year-old Tori Morton, whom an undercover cop had lured to a Hardee's parking lot by pretending to be a pot and cocaine buyer. Morton was sitting in the front passenger seat of Hammond's Honda Civic as Tiller approached the driver's side with his gun drawn, shouting, "Hands up! Put 'em up! Stop! Stop! Stop! I'm gonna shoot your fucking ass!"
Hammond, who was already backing up as Tiller approached the car, continued on his way, making a sharp left so he could pull out of the parking lot. Tiller ran into the path of the car, then backed up to avoid being hit.
When Tiller fired the first shot, which entered Hammond's chest through the left side, he was no longer in the car's path. Tiller fired a second shot, which hit Hammond in the back, as Hammond was moving past him. There is no indication that Hammond aimed the car at Tiller, and Tiller was not in danger of being struck when he fired those two rounds.
"The video viewed at full speed, standing alone, is troublesome," Adams conceded in the letter explaining her decision. She probably meant troubling, but the slip is revealing: The video, viewed at any speed, is indeed troublesome—that is, inconvenient—if you are determined to conclude that Tiller reasonably believed killing Hammond was the only way to avoid death or serious injury.
Adams managed that feat, despite the video and autopsy evidence to the contrary, by emphasizing how quickly Tiller killed Hammond. "Lt. Tiller had seconds to make this decision," she said. "The law prohibits viewing Lt. Tiller's decision to use deadly force from the perspective of a 'Monday morning quarterback.'"
As in the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was killed in 2014 because someone saw him playing with an Airsoft pellet gun, the officer's hastiness counts in his favor, and the recklessness of his approach does not figure in his legal culpability. These are the sort of breaks you can expect if you have a badge as well as a gun, and they are a pretty strong defense against viral videos.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Camera-Shy Cops Can Relax".