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On July 18, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Officer William Hyatt Jr. shot and killed Officer Thomas Hamlette Jr. during a melee outside a Northwest nightclub. Friendly-fire tragedies aren’t uncommon for big-city police departments, but the incident looked like part of a trend. After all, it was the third case in as many years in which a white officer had shot a black officer.
In February 1995, 7th District motorcycle cop James McGee, 26, was killed by a white cop who mistook him for a robbery suspect; in December 1995, Detective Lani Jackson-Pinckney, 33 and pregnant, was shot in the back by a white cop who mistook her for an armed robber. Jackson-Pinckney survived but was partially paralyzed. Her baby survived as well.
Hamlette’s violent death prompted racial grumblings in police locker rooms across the city. A white sergeant in Anacostia’s 7th District even heard a rumor that black cops were going to stage a protest. Like most of the rumors that circulate among the 3,600-member force, this one was untrue; the rally never made it to the streets, and tensions among officers calmed.
MPD Chief Charles Ramsey on Aug. 27 announced that an internal investigation had cleared both Hyatt, 28, and Hamlette, 24, of any wrongdoing. “The only color of relevance is that both people involved are blue,” Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer told the Washington Post.
Gainer’s eloquent dismissal satisfied department skeptics and the publiceveryone, that is, except Hamlette’s parents. Thomas Hamlette Sr., 55, a 20-year D.C. Police veteran, and his wife Pauline, 58, principal of Amidon Elementary School in Southwest, have retained an attorney and have filed a suit against both Hyatt and the District for the wrongful death of their son. And, according to their attorney, race is a cornerstone of the case.
“The truth is that this was not as [police investigators] say it was,” says Gregory Lattimer, the Hamlettes’ attorney. According to the complaint, “Defendants without proper grounds, willfully and maliciously shot Officer Thomas F. Hamlette, the decedent, at least 5 times.”
Lattimer filed the suit on Sept. 28 and is seeking a judgment of $3,000,000 plus lawyer’s fees.
Within a day of the shooting, William McManus, commander of the 1st District, said in roll call, according to an officer present, that officers shouldn’t engage in the traditional police expressions of mourningsuch as wrapping black tape around badges. Hamlette, McManus allegedly said, had not only been off-duty but had seemed drunk and disorderly. Hamlette’s sister, Lt. Pam Simms, who works in 1D, heard about his alleged remarks and was upset enough to contact Mayor Marion Barry.
“[McManus] set a tone,” says a black officer in 1D who was at roll call that day. “We have a very diverse district, but at roll call he drew a linehe being white and on one side of the line, and me being black and on the other….Not to mention that it was very early to be making any judgments like that. The toxicology tests hadn’t even come back.”
McManus’ alleged statements did nothing to diminish the Hamlettes’ bitterness over the death of their son. Regardless, McManus will not be a party in the Hamlettes’ lawsuit. “Mr McManus’ conduct was crude and obnoxious,” says Lattimer. “But you have the right to be crude and obnoxious.”
The Hamlettes’ suit, instead, hammers the department for “failing to properly train, supervise, control, direct, and monitor” Hyatta charge laced with racial subtext, according to Lattimer. The string of white-on-black shootings, the lawyer argues, is a management problem, not just a series of accidents. “[T]hese incidents clearly show that the problem may be racially motivated in that the officers being shot dead are black and the officers doing the shooting are white,” reads an Aug. 31 letter from Lattimer to Barry. Lattimer elaborates, “As a result of the District’s horrendously deficient training, and its complicity in the reckless killing of black police officers by white police officers on its own police force, Thomas F. Hamlette, Jr., died a horrible death on the street outside an establishment owned by his father.”
Behind Lattimer’s charges of poor training and a cover-up of Hyatt’s alleged wrongdoing is an extensive reconstruction of events that went down at 12:30 a.m. in front of The Club, a bar on K St. NW. And the suit’s conclusions don’t quite square with the findings of police investigators that Hyatt followed department policies in the shooting.
The official version of events goes like this: After bar patron Folayele Fapohunda struck Hamlette in a dispute over a parking place, Hamlette drew his department-issued semiautomatic Glock. Fapohunda and Hamlette struggled over the gun, which went off. Hyatt heard the sound of gunfire, approached the scene, identified himself three times as a cop, and ordered Hamlette to drop his gun. Hamlette turned to Hyatt without either dropping his gun or identifying himself as a fellow officer. Hyatt fired four shots into Hamlette’s torso. Hamlette fell onto the sidewalk. Fapohunda later said that Hamlette had never identified himself as a cop.
Although Lattimer concedes that parts of the official account are correct, he says it contains several important omissions. In actuality, Lattimer says, two men started fighting with Hamlette, and soon all three were scuffling on the ground. After a security guard lifted one of Hamlette’s opponents from him, Hamlette drew his gun “to hold the other one at bay,” according to Lattimer.
Then Hyatt arrived at the scene, according to Lattimer. Hyatt, says Lattimer, was a regular at The Club and didn’t exactly descend upon a sea of strangers that night. “[Hyatt] had seen [Hamlette] before. He knew this guy. He knew that Hamlette was a police officer.”
The complaint alleges that “Officer Thomas F. Hamlette, Jr.,…had his identification out and had in fact, identified himself as a police officer to the patrons who attacked him.” A police officer who was at the scene spoke to Washington City Paper on the condition of anonymity and confirmed that Hamlette’s police ID was on the ground, next to his body.
Then, according to the complaint, Hyatt pulled out his semiautomatic Glock and shot Hamlette five times, even though the victim was still sitting on the sidewalk. “Each of the wounds suffered by Officer Hamlette were inflicted while he was on the ground and presenting no immediate threat to anyone,” reads the suit. Lattimer says that he has more than three witnesses who will corroborate this account, though he refused to provide their names.
“All D.C. cops shoot first and ask questions later,” says Lattimer. “Especially when the person on the other side of the barrel happens to be a young black man. Black is black. You’re black first and a police officer second.”
Lattimer says that many witnesses to the shooting gave conflicting accounts on key points, and investigators “picked and chose who they wanted to speak to, and those people are the ones who gave them the evidence they wanted to hear.”
As an attorney in pursuit of a verdict, or at least a settlement, Lattimer is at liberty to interpret events to advance his case. Police spokesman Sgt. Joe Gentile has no such flexibility, and, citing the pending litigation, referred questions on the shooting to the District’s attorneys at Corporation Counsel. Corporation Counsel spokesman Walter Smith said that city lawyers needed more time to review the complaint.
Hyatt, reportedly on administrative leave, could not be reached for comment but can count on support from some black officers. “I don’t think it was a matter of black and white. It was a matter of circumstances,” says a black master patrol officer. “If I had been in the position of the white officer, I might have done the same thing. Training took over.”
Another officer, a black sergeant, says training may not trump race-based assumptions. “There’s a lot of closet racism on the force….You hear a white officer say, ‘Let’s go check out that club [for crimes]; you know how “those people” are.’ And your guard goes up….I am concerned that white officers are quick to judge.” But, this sergeant adds, “I know Hyatt’s father [an officer in 5D], and he’s not like that. I would be very surprised if his son were.”
At her son’s funeral on July 24, Pauline Hamlette had a message for the parents of Officer Hyatt. “The Hamlettes are not angry with you or your son,” she said. She invited the parents of her son’s killer to “seek the truth and find out what really happened that night.”
Pauline Hamlette still has the same tone in her voiceand the same question. Police investigators have never provided a satisfactory answer as to the events of that night, she argues. “Knowing [Thomas] was a person who didn’t go out and seek confrontationhe walked away from itI don’t understand how he couldn’t walk away from this one….There are some things we have not received satisfactory clearance on….We want to further the investigation to some of the things that we have some concerns about, to bring some closure.”
If the case proceeds to trial, Pauline Hamlette’s healing overtures will assuredly be replaced by the nastiness of attorneys. Hyatt’s version of the events differs dramatically from the scenario Lattimer will introduce, and several witnesses have told the police that Hamlette was clearly in the wrong.
“I don’t blame anyone for it,” Pauline Hamlette says. She says that she hopes her lawsuit will prevent this type of white-cop-on-black-cop shooting from ever happening again. “We certainly would not want any other mother and father to have to suffer this kind of an incident,” she says. “We hope that Tommy’s death…will cause the police department to bring about a lot of changes.”
Police spokesman Kevin Morison says that the tragedy has had policy repercussions on the force, though not the kind that Hamlette’s mom wants. Ramsey has championed a few initiatives to prevent similar tragedies: allowing cops to purchase personal radios to take home when off duty so they can radio for help if they need it; changing the city law that requires D.C. cops to carry their weapons with them at all times; and, Morison adds, instituting “more scenario-based training” to reduce instances of officers killed by friendly fire.
“Chief Ramsey is upset about any instances of friendly fire between officers,” Morison says, refusing to specifically answer questions about any pattern of white officers shooting black ones.
As for the events of July 18, almost no one other than the Hamlettes wants to re-open the wound. The shooting “has been investigated and [the conclusion was that there was] no wrongdoing by either officer in that tragedy,” Morison adds. “The filing of a lawsuit’s not going to change that determination.”CP