Monday, November 12, 2018

SWAT Team Insists They IDed Themselves Before Raid That Killed Isaiah Hammett

Posted By on Mon, Nov 12, 2018 at 9:37 AM

click to enlarge Isaiah Hammett's mother, Gina Torres, with two of her children during a protest outside the St. Louis Police HQ in September. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Isaiah Hammett's mother, Gina Torres, with two of her children during a protest outside the St. Louis Police HQ in September.

Days after the hail of bullets in June 2017 that ended in Isaiah Hammett's death, all eight members of the SWAT team that killed him told similar stories.

According to the internal police investigation after the shooting, the officers stated that their orders — to deliver a search warrant at the 21-year-old Hammett's house — had come with intel that their target was likely paranoid and had been seen carrying an AK-47-style rifle. The officers claimed that they announced themselves as they burst through the front door of the single-story bungalow on the 5400 block of South Kingshighway. And they recounted that upon entering, they were met with a blast of bullets coming from somewhere inside the house.

There were "rounds coming through the closed wooden bedroom door towards them," one officer said. Another recalled that he couldn't identify the source of the shots "until he saw holes coming out from the wall towards him." That officer said he returned fire, "shooting into the holes in the wall towards the shots being fired at him."

The interviews with SWAT team members were conducted by detectives working for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's Force Investigative Unit, or FIU, which is tasked with investigating police shootings. Riverfront Times obtained a version of the FIU's report on Hammett's shooting through a Sunshine request.

The report does not name the individual SWAT members involved in the shooting.

As RFT previously reported, the FIU's completed report was sent to the city's Circuit Attorney's Office in September. It was only released to this newspaper late Friday after repeated requests.

In the report, police investigators interviewed the SWAT officers as well as several witnesses, though none of the bystanders directly saw the gunfight alleged by the officers.

Overall, the material in the report fits with the narrative offered by police in the immediate wake of the June 7, 2017 shooting. At the time, acting police chief Lt. Colonel Lawrence O'Toole told reporters that a "firefight" had broken out inside the home. He theorized that Hammett had been able to plan an ambush thanks to a surveillance camera mounted on the house.

But that allegation, at least, is disproven by the report, which notes, "An inspection of the camera system revealed it was no longer functioning."

Isaiah Hammett (left) with mother, Gina Torres, and friend, Julian Cobb. - COURTESY OF JULIAN COBB
  • Isaiah Hammett (left) with mother, Gina Torres, and friend, Julian Cobb.

What is still unclear — and what has partly motivated protests by Hammett's family and supporters — is the question of whether Hammett himself knew the men storming into his house were police. Hammett's mother, Gina Torres, has said that her son was home that day taking care of his grandfather, and reacted to protect him.

"They thought someone was trying to break in," Torres told RFT just hours after the shooting. She rejected the claim that her son was connected to drug and gun sales, and instead insisted that her son died believing he was protecting his grandfather from an attack on the home.

Hammett's grandfather, Dennis Torres, told FIU detectives that he'd been in a rear bedroom when he heard shots, "too many to count." Then his grandson came into the bedroom and told him "someone was breaking into the house." According to Torres, Hammett lifted him out of bed and put him on the floor.

Torres was uninjured in the ensuing firefight. He told detectives that someone then told him to come out of the house. It was then that he saw his grandson's body on the floor.

What the interview with Torres does not address, however, is whether the older man heard the SWAT team identify themselves as police when they bashed down the front door.

According to the officers' interviews with detectives, the officers claimed they had yelled "police, search warrant" as they entered. One officer claimed they shouted their introduction "as loud as they all could." Another officer said he had "started screaming at the top of his lungs."

In the the FIU interviews, the officers generally claimed that they'd been warned to give Hammett clear warning that he was being raided by the police. The suspect was believed to be "on edge," one officer said. Prior to the raid, the SWAT members were told that Hammett was a documented gang member and a suspect in a homicide investigation.

The FIU report's summary of one officer's interview notes:
Officer 2 stated that they were also advised that the suspect (Isaiah H.) was the recent victim of some shootings and was probably going to be paranoid, so, to make sure that he (Isaiah H.) knows it's the police. Officer 2 explained that S.W.A.T Officers always announce their presence but were told exaggerate it even more than normal because of suspect's history.

Yet outside of recollections by St. Louis Police officers, the FIU report includes no witnesses who report hearing the police identify themselves prior to the gunfire. Three neighbors told FIU detectives they heard gunshots, and a nearby business owner said he heard about twenty gunshots before he heard officers shout "police" and order someone out of the home. None of those sources specifically tell the FIU investigators that they heard the officers screaming the words, "Police, search warrant."

The report also does not mention whether the SWAT members wore body cameras during the operation. There is no video of the raid from dash cams: Although backup officers were on the scene prior to the shooting, no in-car cameras were operating at the time, the report notes. (SWAT vehicles are not equipped with in-car cameras, according to the report.)

Even according to the officers' accounts, the purported warning came just moments before they burst through the door with a battering ram. One officer claimed the SWAT team began shouting their warnings just before they broke through the door, "as the ram was swinging backwards."

Once the door was open, a SWAT member deployed a flash bang "just inside the front door." That officer who deployed the flash bang told an FIU detective that he then entered the home and made it as far as the living room.

Then, "the walls in front of him erupted in gunfire."

Here's how a SWAT member identified as Officer 1 recounted the gunfight:

For the next several minutes there were exchanges of gunfire between the officers in the living room and the suspect in the bedroom. Officer 1 stated rounds were coming through the bedroom walls towards them, and they were shooting back towards the bedroom. Officer 1 stated that he saw movement to his left and Isaiah H. came out of the hallway and into the dining room with a "shouldered weapon." Officer 1 stated he fired two rounds, other officers fired, and Isaiah H. went down.

In the year following the shooting, Hammett's family has mounted a public defense of the 21-year-old, including hiring an independent forensic expert to evaluate the scene of the shooting. The family attests that the expert found no evidence that Hammett ever returned fire against the officers. The expert has claimed that all bullet damage to the home came from police, not Hammett.

However, officers did recover a considerable collection of weapons from the home, most of which were owned by Dennis Torres. The arsenal included several rifles and handguns. According to the report, "several of the firearms were previously reported as stolen."

Acting Chief O'Toole had portrayed Hammett in the immediate aftermath of the shooting as a drug dealer suspected of selling both drugs and arms from the home. But his record showed only a misdemeanor conviction for possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana, and the FIU report doesn't mention any large cache of drugs. The report states only that officers seized two glass jars containing marijuana, as well as a gallon bag of the stuff, three digital scales and a glass pipe. The report does not tally the number of grams in the jars and baggie. In the FIU report, an officer said he sent the drug samples to the lab for analysis, but that analysis is not among the documents released by the department Friday.

The report does note that the AK-47-style rifle recovered next to Hammett's body had been legally purchased one month prior to the raid at a gun store in Affton.

The police SWAT team again raided the home four months after Hammett's death — with a flash-bang device allegedly thrown into a room where his younger siblings were sleeping. The report doesn't mention the results of that raid or the reason it was conducted.

You can read the entire FIU report below.

St. Louis police FIU report on Isaiah Hammett by Danny Wicentowski on Scribd

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at
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