Last July, Daniel Hambrick, a 25-year-old black man, was fatally shot while running from a white Nashville police officer. Now Hambrick’s family has filed a federal lawsuit arguing that local officers are too quick to use lethal force and that the police department encourages a culture of “fear, violence, racism, and impunity.”
Filed on March 11, the wrongful death lawsuit argues that the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department encourages a belief “that without constant police vigilance and the threat of police violence Nashville’s black community would degenerate into violence and anarchy.”
Because of this alleged culture of paranoia, the lawsuit says, officers in the city overpolice black neighborhoods and aggressively stop black motorists — practices the family says contributed to the fatal shooting of Hambrick.
Hambrick’s family is seeking $30 million in damages.
Although the officer who shot Hambrick, Andrew Delke (also 25 years old), became the first Nashville officer to be charged for an on-duty shooting when he was indicted on a first-degree murder charge in January, the lawsuit accuses the department of evading accountability for its broader practices. The family argues that the department has avoided enacting programs to reduce racial disparities in traffic stops and has resisted adopting a body-worn camera program, despite local officials having allocated money for cameras.
The local police union has said that Delke’s shooting of Hambrick was justified, while community activists and Hambrick’s family say Delke unnecessarily escalated the encounter and shot Hambrick solely because he was running away.
This lawsuit joins a long line of recent federal suits filed by the families of black men killed in police shootings. Collectively, these lawsuits argue that recent high-profile police shootings cannot be removed from a larger context: the policies of the departments that train officers.
With convictions in police shooting cases still rare, these lawsuits have become a key mechanism for families seeking both a formal acknowledgment that misconduct occurred and a permanent change in how these police departments operate.
Police argue that the Daniel Hambrick shooting was justified. His family disagrees.
On July 26, 2018, Delke, then an officer with the city’s juvenile task force, was looking for stolen vehicles when officers spotted a white Chevrolet Impala driving in an “erratic pattern.”
According to an affidavit filed last year, the officer became suspicious after the car did not drive past officers despite having the right of way. When Delke looked up the vehicle’s license plate, he found the car was not stolen — but he continued to follow it anyway, “to see if he could develop a reason to stop the Impala.”
Delke later lost track of the car but came across a different white car in a parking lot. Mistaking it for the Impala, Delke pulled up, and Hambrick, one of the people near the car, ran. Delke chased after him.
The affidavit notes that at that point, the officer had no reason to believe that Hambrick was involved in any criminal activity.
Delke later said that he saw a gun in Hambrick’s hand during the chase, and the officer claimed that he gave “several commands” for Hambrick to drop the weapon, according to the affidavit. Delke shot at Hambrick four times, hitting him in his head, torso, and back. The fourth bullet hit a nearby building.
The shooting immediately caused outrage, with local community members and Hambrick’s family arguing that he had not committed a crime and was shot unnecessarily. The police department argued that Delke had a reasonable fear that Hambrick would shoot.
The Nashville district attorney released surveillance video of the shooting last August. It shows Delke stopping and firing at Hambrick as the man ran away. Police have said that Hambrick was raising his arm to shoot, but due to the blurriness of the video, this claim is difficult to confirm.
The local police union has maintained that the shooting was justified, and has created a website calling attention to Hambrick’s arrest record, repeatedly referring to the man as a “convicted felon,” pointing to his prior convictions on robbery and assault charges. Late last year, a judge ruled that the defense could discuss parts of this history in court, despite Delke being unaware of it at the time of the shooting.
The union also strongly opposed an activist-led effort to create a citizen oversight board in the wake of the shooting, arguing that citizens lacked the knowledge to judge officer behavior. Yet Nashville voters approved a ballot amendment to create the board by a 59 to 41 percent margin last year, and the new 11-member panel is expected to begin meeting in the near future.
The lawsuit argues that the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department’s policies played a role in the shooting
Delke has maintained that he was not wrong to shoot Hambrick, and his lawyers have said that the officer was following his training when he fired.
The lawsuit from Hambrick’s family does not dispute this, but rather uses the claim to argue that Nashville officers are trained to rely on lethal force and to treat black people as criminals.
The lawsuit focuses in part on the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department’s policies around traffic stops, citing statistics from the department’s annual reports on traffic stops to make the case that the department stops a disproportionate number of black drivers, a discrepancy that cannot be explained by crime levels in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Delke, who had been working as an officer for less than two years at the time of Hambrick’s death, is noted to have stopped far more black drivers than white ones. “The ratio of black to white drivers that Officer Delke subjected to traffic stops was consistently above the average of other MNPD officers patrolling in the same geographic zones,” the lawsuit says, citing data on Delke’s traffic stops.
The claims from Hambrick’s family are not the first time these sorts of disparities have been criticized in Nashville. The Tennessean notes that a 2016 report from a local nonprofit called Gideon’s Army “suggested severe and institutional racial discrimination on the force” when it came to traffic stops. A 2018 report requested by Nashville police and conducted by the NYU School of Law’s Policing Project also found racial disparities in traffic stops.
The lawsuit argues that the department has largely ignored these reports, claiming that it “continues to deny that there are improper racial disparities in stops and has done nothing to reduce such disparities.”
For its part, the department says that it “looks forward to vigorously defending this lawsuit and correcting the plethora of misinformation it contains.”
Hambrick’s family says they hope the suit leads not only to an acknowledgment that what happened to their loved one was wrong and should not have happened, but also to a change in the police department’s practices.
“We want the responsible parties to be held responsible,” Joy Kimbrough, an attorney representing Hambrick’s family, told reporters on Monday. “We don’t think this was merely misconduct.”