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Why unarmed teen killed by police hasn't led to national protests

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Screen capture via Twitter

(Read caption) Zachary Hammond, a white South Carolina teen shot by police, is shown in this screen capture from a Twitter post.

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Zachary Hammond was on a first date with a girl on July 26 in Seneca, S.C., when they stopped at a Hardee’s parking lot in his car. Police said they suspected the girl of selling marijuana and set up a sting operation to try and catch her in the act.

When confronted with law enforcement, Mr. Hammond attempted to flee and a police officer shot him twice. In the end, Hammond had been killed and his companion was charged with a minor drug possession. 

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The death of Hammond, who was 19, bears some strikingly similarities to the death of Samuel DuBose, a Cincinnati man who was shot by a police officer on July 19. In both cases, the two men were unarmed and the official police record that said the suspects attempted to run officers over has been called into question by conflicting sources. The difference in media attention thus far, however, is notable.

Currently on social media, debate is raging about the lack of attention Hammond's death has gotten from #AllLivesMatter proponents, who have been accused of trying to distort the message of #BlackLivesMatter activists fighting for parity for black people in the criminal justice system.  

While race may be a factor in the disparity of media coverage – Hammond was white and Mr. DuBose was black – to some observers, the conversation on national racial dynamics in the case in Seneca is diverting attention away from equally pressing questions about police brutality and transparency. And to reduce the question exclusively to the victim's race would be to oversimplify the matter, they say.

“The thing that I’m hearing from people is not just a narrative of racial justice. It is accountability for police forces. It is transparency. It is understanding how communities are being policed and what the average citizen has a right to do, or not to do, in those interactions,” Meredith Clark, an assistant professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, told the Los Angeles Times. “In that case, Hammond fits right in.”

On Twitter, a number of activists have questioned the lack of outrage surrounding Hammond's death.

Other reasons besides race exist that may partly explain the disparity in media attention. In the DuBose case, for example, dashboard camera video of the shooting was released and a Cincinnati prosecutor was willing to press charges and make statements in front of television cameras.

So far, also, media reports have not turned up a pattern of questionable use of police force in the small, suburban city of Seneca, as compared with New York or Baltimore.

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The lack of this antagonistic relationship between law enforcement and the citizenry is mirrored by the lack of a strong community response to Hammond’s death.

“The community there has not organized protests or demonstrations,” reports The Huffington Post. “They haven't held rallies or vigils – or at least any that have been well-attended enough to attract even local news coverage.”

But a series of apparent inconsistencies in the official police record and the reticence of authorities to be open with their investigation is deepening outside scrutiny, at any rate.

So far, the police department in Seneca has refused to release the dashcam footage of the incident or the name of the officer that shot Hammond.

“We will not be releasing the [officer’s] name that was involved in the shooting and consider him a victim of attempted murder as we have previously stated several times," Seneca Police Chief John Covington said in a statement. "We feel that releasing his name may possibly subject the officer and family to harassment, intimidation or abuse.”

The original police report failed to mention the two shots that killed Hammond. An independent autopsy done at the family's request showed that the bullets came in through the side of his body, The Guardian reported, conflicting with the official report that said Hammond was driving toward the officer when he fired.

“The whole issue of race is getting distorted and what’s getting lost is the real issue, which is excessive force,” Eric Bland, the Hammond family’s attorney told The Washington Post. "The issue should be: Why was an unarmed teen gunned down in a situation where deadly force was not even justified?”