In a flash, we choose a side in police shootings

Friday, June 19, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 25

Daniel Hambrick’s mother, Vickie Hambrick, is comforted in November as Andrew Delke’s attorney, David Raybin, debates a new trial location at the Justice A. A. Birch Building.

-- Photo By Courtney Pedroza | Ap

Nashville needn’t look to Minneapolis for a highly controversial killing of a black man by a white police officer. It has its own example.

Actually, it had two within 18 months. The first, in February 2017, led to a public push for a Civilian Oversight Board, later created by referendum to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

But only one case has ever resulted in criminal charges filed against the officer involved, and it’s still unresolved. That’s the July 26, 2018, killing of Daniel Hambrick by Officer Andrew Delke.

There are several differences between it and the Minneapolis killing. For one thing, it lacks images like those of Officer Derek Chauvin that disturbed millions of people: staring into the camera as he slowly and dispassionately kneed the life out of George Floyd last month.

Floyd was by all accounts unarmed; Hambrick had a gun. Hambrick ran from the officer who killed him; Floyd did not. Floyd’s alleged offense was passing a bogus $20 bill to buy cigarettes; Hambrick had supposedly been driving in an “erratic pattern.”

Why either allegation should end up with someone dead is a reasonable question, but as we have seen, such is all too often the state of affairs in this country.

The Nashville Fraternal Order of Police considers the Minneapolis and Nashville killings different. In a statement, it called the actions of Chauvin and the three other Minneapolis officers who looked on and did nothing “indefensible.”

Its view of the Nashville killing is that it was entirely defensible, and reasonable.

“That’s not a crime,” James Smallwood, FOP president, said of the Nashville case. “It’s what Officer Delke and every other police officer in America is trained to do to protect their life and others.”

A brief recap here: Delke had been on the lookout for stolen vehicles. He saw Hambrick driving in that “erratic pattern,” but somehow lost him. Delke later came upon Hambrick again in a parking lot of the John Henry Hale Apartments in North Nashville. Hambrick ran. Delke chased. And shot him.

Twice in the back. Once in the head.

As for the defense offered by the FOP president Smallwood – that Officer Delke only did what he was trained to do – it begs the question. It assumes that what Delke (“and every other police officer in America”) is trained to do is ipso facto the right thing to do.

I suggest that perhaps it isn’t at all right, while conceding that it may indeed be legal. The two aren’t necessarily the same.

Police Chief Steve Anderson earlier on seemed willing to consider that point. In August 2018, in light of the Hambrick killing, he said that the department would review its policies regarding foot pursuits.

Not surprisingly, no changes were made. Any modification before Delke’s trial would not look good for him.

A further point, as relates to Delke’s training. This past January, The Associated Press reported that he had been admonished for pulling a stun gun instead of his weapon during the arrest of an armed suspect in November 2017. Delke reportedly told supervisors he didn’t pull his gun because of the “hostile climate toward police use of force throughout the country.”

He also told them that he particularly had in mind the February 2017 killing by a Nashville officer.

Sgt. Matthew Boguskie would have none of that.

“I discussed with Officer Delke that we cannot allow outside factors to detract us from our training and what we know we should do in dangerous situations, particularly situations that could quickly rise to a deadly force situation,” according to the report.

I suspect that little heart-to-heart made an impression on the young officer, who at that point had been on the force about a year. In any event, he later seemed to have no qualms about pulling his gun and using it. As he told officials of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation who looked into the killing:

“I said to myself, ‘If I don’t shoot him right now, I’m gonna die.’ So that’s what I did.”

District Attorney Glenn Funk made the decision to seek charges against Delke. A grand jury indicted him on a first-degree murder charge; his trial was to have been this month but has been delayed by coronavirus restrictions.

Funk had this explanation for his decision: “Any person in Davidson County who shoots someone who is running away from them – shoots them in the back and kills them – needs to be held accountable.”

The salient portion of that, of course, is “someone who is running away.” In a 1985 decision prompted by a killing by a police officer in Memphis, the U.S. Supreme Court held that deadly force may not be used “unless necessary to prevent the escape ?and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others?.” Emphasis mine.

Hambrick, as mentioned, had a gun. But was he a threat? Running away? Delke has claimed Hambrick turned and pointed his gun, something not borne out by video and which a TBI agent concluded was unlikely.

We’re too quick to choose sides after police-involved killings in this country. Some people immediately line up behind the police; some behind the victim. It seems to me that each case should stand on its own.

And that there are far too many of them.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com.