Fault Lines
20 September 2017

Paid Vacation Ends For South Carolina Officer Mark Tiller

September 8, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Thirteen months of paid vacation administrative leave for killing 19-year-old Zachary Hammond; not a bad deal if you can get it. South Carolina’s Seneca Police Department terminated Lieutenant Mark Tiller this week after, you guessed it, thirteen months of paid administrative leave during which Tiller never returned to any type of duty. Tiller’s vacation started with the shooting of Zachary Hammond on July 26, 2015 and will end this Friday.

While Police Chief John Covington won’t say why he fired Tiller, calling it a personnel matter, it’s clearly related to the shooting. With the department since 2010, Tiller had not faced any disciplinary actions. It was only this shooting which prompted Tiller’s administrative leave. And, surely, while on leave, Tiller did not incur any new disciplinary problems.

Local prosecutors described the dash cam video as troublesome, but justified from a criminal prosecution standpoint, because Tiller believed he was going to be run over. Never mind that he was beside the car, rather than in front. Never mind that he had already moved away from the vehicle. While prosecutors declined to indict Tiller, they were right about one thing: the dash cam video is quite troubling.

Tiller raced up to Hammond’s car, blocking him in, and rather than taking control of the situation, ran up to the vehicle, gun drawn. All the while, an undercover officer in a pickup truck is parked next to Hammond. The undercover officer was engaged in a small marijuana drug transaction with Hammond’s passenger and can be seen getting out of his truck as Tiller arrives.

Undoubtedly, Tiller arrived because of some predetermined bust signal provided by the undercover officer. And yet, rather than requesting his assistance or even ordering the suspects from the car, Tiller rushed the suspect vehicle, placing himself in danger. Just after pushing off Hammond’s car, Tiller fires twice as Hammond attempts to drive away. As the vehicle leaves the video frame, the undercover officer is seen walking into view again. Tiller hollers, “he tried to hit me” and the undercover responds, “he did.”

Tiller claimed he feared for his life. He believed he was going to be run over. How exactly did he manifest that belief? Was it when he charged the car? Was it when he moved toward the car despite it being in gear and in motion? Was it after he pushed away from the side of the car? Well, at least we know that’s the point at which he decided to fire upon the car to neutralize the threat. Yes, things happen in a split second, or actually about 5 seconds in this case (00:49 – 00:54 in the dash cam video). But, that’s exactly why police are specially trained. The First Rule of Policing is to make it home for dinner. They train to be able to go home at night. They prepare physically and mentally to confront dangerous situations and survive.

Police 101, or at least 201, teaches that officers should control the situation. Police are generally advised against shooting into moving vehicles in both practice and policy. Officers are taught to have the suspect come to them rather than rush the suspect. Yet time and time again, officers disregard that training and rely on being in fear for their life to justify shooting into cars, because, of course, being in fear justifies all shootings, right? As Fault Lines contributor Ken Womble eloquently pointed out:

Police use the same excuse no matter where they are in relation to the path of the car. Coming directly at the cop. Had to shoot. Driving by the cop. Had to shoot. Dragging the cop along. Had to shoot. In none of these scenarios is shooting the driver advisable nor does it increase anyone’s safety (especially the occupants of the vehicle).

Police have grown accustomed to deploying lethal force when it is not necessary. Firing a gun at someone should be a last resort. Firing a gun at someone who is driving a car should not even be a last resort. It should not be an option.

And that’s really the point: officers have grown accustomed to using lethal, deadly force when it is not necessary. But again, that’s the First Rule – be the one who goes home for dinner. Sure, there will always be exceptions, but is it necessary to shoot at and kill any person who tries to get away? Can officers no longer follow suspects to affect an arrest? Call for backup? Sadly, it happens all too often and it isn’t right.

Echoing that it just isn’t right, the police department settled a lawsuit brought by Hammond’s family for $2.15 million earlier this year. And meanwhile, Lieutenant Tiller enjoyed a 13-month paid vacation and a pass on criminal charges. Allowing an officer to remain on the payroll with no obligations, not even desk duty, hardly seems adequate discipline for having taken a life. What type of example does this serve for other officers who continue to fire into moving vehicles? Well, at least the department finally ended the vacation.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Greg Prickett
    8 September 2016 at 9:58 am - Reply

    What’s worse is the fact that he’ll probably find employment with another police department. He’s been sort of a gypsy cop already. His past employment:

    West Pelzer PD – 8 months, Jan-Aug 2006
    Clemson Univ. PD -10 months, Aug 2006 – June 2007
    City of Clemson PD – 2 years, 6 months, June 2007 – Jan 2010
    Seneca PD – Jan 2010 – Sep 2016

    West Pelter is a town of under 1,000 population. Clemson Univ. is a public school with about 22,000 students, larger than the 14,000 population of the city of the same name. Seneca is a town of about 8,000 population.

    • Bob
      8 September 2016 at 1:58 pm - Reply

      Yeah, but out of those 45,000 people he was responsible for policing over the past ten years, he only killed one of them without reason.

      Nobody’s perfect.

  • The Dangerous Shell Game Of “Gypsy Cops”
    15 September 2016 at 9:01 am - Reply

    […] field, but were never charged with a crime. There are officers who engaged in troublesome behavior that is nonetheless justified by the reasonably scared cop rule, who then took the gypsy road to the next available department. […]