Ferguson, NYC, Milwaukee: Protests Erupt as Officer Cleared in Killing of Unarmed Dontre Hamilton

StoryDecember 24, 2014
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A Wisconsin prosecutor has decided not to bring charges against a white police officer who fatally shot a mentally ill African-American man. In April, Milwaukee Officer Christopher Manney responded to a call about a man sleeping in a park. Before Manney arrived, two other officers had already spoken to the man, Dontre Hamilton, and found he was not causing a problem. But Manney said Hamilton resisted when he tried to frisk him, sparking a confrontation, during which Hamilton grabbed Manney’s baton and hit him. Manney opened fire, shooting Hamilton 14 times. The shooting led to Manney’s firing for violating policy on handling people with mental illnesses. But on Monday, the Milwaukee County district attorney said Manney acted in self-defense. The shooting of Hamilton has sparked mass protests in Milwaukee including a highway shutdown Friday which resulted in 74 arrests. One day later, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called up the state’s National Guard to be on standby. The Justice Department has announced a federal review of the case. We speak with Democratic State Representative Mandela Barnes in Milwaukee.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In Wisconsin, a prosecutor has decided not to bring charges against a white police officer who fatally shot a mentally ill African-American man in April. Milwaukee Officer Christopher Manney responded to a call about a man sleeping in a park. Before Manney arrived, two other officers had already spoken to the man, Dontre Hamilton, and found he was not causing a problem. But Manney said Hamilton resisted when he tried to frisk him, sparking a confrontation during which Hamilton grabbed Manney’s baton and hit him with it. Manney opened fire, shooting Hamilton 14 times. The shooting led to Manney’s firing for violating the department’s policy for handling people with mental illnesses. But on Monday, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said Manney acted in self-defense.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY JOHN CHISHOLM: After carefully analyzing the investigation, the forensic evidence in the case, the law and the conclusions of both the local use of force expert and Mr. Kapelsohn’s report, I have come to the conclusion that criminal charges are not appropriate in this case, and I am releasing all of the information related to this investigation so that you, the public, can see all the facts related to this decision.

AMY GOODMAN: The shooting of Dontre Hamilton has sparked mass protest in Milwaukee, including a highway shutdown Friday which resulted in 74 arrests. One day later, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker called up the National Guard to be on standby. On Tuesday, a group of protesters staged a die-in at Mayfair Mall. They lay on the ground and read out loud 14 reasons why black lives matter—14 is the number of times Dontre Hamilton was shot. On Monday, Dontre Hamilton’s brother Nate spoke outside the federal courthouse.

NATE HAMILTON: My family, we’ve cried too long. As a people, we’re done crying when injustice comes. We’re not going to cover up injustice with our tears. We’re not going to be, you know, laid-back and stay sheltered from justice. We deserve justice.

CROWD: That’s right!

NATE HAMILTON: Justice is our right. You know, my family—you know, I love my family. I love my brother. So, you know, this is a fight that we are going to endure. We’re going to stay strong. We’re not going to waver. We’re not going to let it pass. We’re not going to turn our backs no more.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the Justice Department has announced a federal review of the case.

For more, we go to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where we’re joined by Democratic State Representative Mandela Barnes, his Twitter handle @TheOtherMandela. He joins us from the PBS station WMVT.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you start off by giving your reaction to the decision not to indict the police officer who killed Dontre Hamilton? And explain to us what happened in the park, as you understand it.

REP. MANDELA BARNES: All right. Well, first of all, I want to thank you for having me this morning. It’s a very important issue, and I’m glad that we’re getting some national attention on the issue.

I was very disappointed when our district attorney chose not to charge Officer—excuse me, former Officer Manney. I put in a phone call to the District Attorney’s Office on Friday. We’ve typically had a very good working relationship. He’s someone that I—you know, I have respect for still, to this moment, but he has gotten this case wrong.

Previously, last year, he got another case wrong, in my opinion, with Corey Stingley, a young man who was killed in a convenience store. He was shoplifting. And after the young man was caught shoplifting, he returned every item that he had to the store clerk. He was getting ready to leave the store, and a few—a number of men decided to take it upon themselves to place another level of justice upon this young man, and they took him down, eventually killing the young man. There were no charges pressed against anybody. That was the first mark.

This is the second mark here with the noncharging of former Officer Manney. For Officer Manney to have lost his job means that there is something—something terrible took place, something that warranted his termination. And for him not to be criminally charged is beyond my imagination at this point, seeing that he acted, in his capacity as an officer, with negligence.

And I’ll say, in every form of the term, this is overkill. He was the third officer to check on Dontre Hamilton. He fired 14 shots into one individual. In my opinion, if you were to punch a person 14 times, you would disable that person. For him to have decided to take it upon himself to say, "All right, well"—I don’t know if he—I don’t know if he checked with the other officers to see what happened, because—I want to know the opinion of the other two officers. Why did the other two officers say—why did the other two officers leave the situation alone? For him to be the third person—you, myself, anybody would be aggravated if we were stopped by three officers in one day in the same place within a very short time frame.

And for a person who’s dealing with some form of mental illness, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, for you—or to be a person in that mental state and for the officer to not have reacted appropriately or approached that situation appropriately, that’s criminally negligent, in my opinion, for—you know, you went against the rules, you went against the training, and as a result, someone is dead now. At the least, there’s some form of responsibility that has to be taken for the loss of another life, and that hasn’t happened. I’m very disappointed with the decision of the district attorney.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Representative Barnes, why did it take so long to even make a decision here? This happened in April, months before the Michael Brown situation in Ferguson or the Eric Garner killing in Staten Island, and yet this decision has only come down now.

REP. MANDELA BARNES: Right. And what you see is, when it takes this long, the decision is—the decision has already been made. When it takes this long, it’s a way that—it’s a time period for the decision makers to craft a response that’s palatable for the public, or that should be palatable to the public. But this is not justice, so there’s no way you can palate an injustice such as this one.

AMY GOODMAN: In October, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn announced he had fired Officer Christopher Manney. This is what he said.

POLICE CHIEF ED FLYNN: Christopher Manney treated Hamilton as though he were a dangerous criminal, instead of following his training in treating Mr. Hamilton as an EDP. Christopher Manney’s approach, including an out-of-policy pat down, was not based on individualized reasonable suspicion, but on an assumption of his mental state and his housing status. This intentional action, in violation of training and policy, instigated a physical confrontation that necessitated a use of deadly force.

Based on the comprehensive internal investigation conducted by the Milwaukee Police Department, I charged Officer Manney with a violation of our Core Value 1.00, Competence, in reference to his out-of-policy contact with Mr. Hamilton, which ultimately led to his within-policy use of deadly force. Based on the totality of the circumstances, including the aggravating and mitigating factors I’ve described, I signed an order terminating Christopher Manney from his employment with the Milwaukee Police Department earlier today.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Milwaukee Police Chief Flynn’s decision to fire Manney, stirring unrest among the department’s rank and file. The Milwaukee Police Association convened a no-confidence vote in Flynn. The union has not disclosed the exact number of voters but said it was a majority of the roughly 1,600 membership. Can you talk more about this, Representative Mandela Barnes?


AMY GOODMAN: So, he’s fired from the force, but also he’s been vindicated. He has not been indicted.

REP. MANDELA BARNES: Right, because—right. Dontre Hamilton is dead as a result of the intentional, out-of-policy behavior of former Officer Christopher Manney. That says enough. You acted in the capacity as a sworn officer. As a result of your action as a sworn officer that is not compliant with the code of conduct, a person is dead. And for him to not receive any criminal charges, again, is beyond me.

And as far as the Milwaukee Police Association, I’m very disappointed that they would take a no-confidence vote. If you were to take a no-confidence vote of police officers, you may see the same result, when you see things like this happen. And again, it’s not every officer. And that’s the unfortunate part. There are so many good officers. The overwhelming number, the overwhelming majority of officers are good. However, you see situations like this play out when you have these bad actors, and these bad actors are not properly reprimanded. It creates a culture, and it creates a suspicion amongst the general population that the police, in general, are not acting in our favor, which isn’t true, but if you have players like the Milwaukee Police Association defending the behavior, then it will lead one to believe that—or lead one to question whose side are they really on.

Unfortunately, you know, whatever political reason that the Milwaukee Police Association felt the need to step in and be very antithetical to the opinion of the populace is—it’s remarkable, honestly. Some things you just can’t defend, and I don’t see how they could defend this. Officers don’t just get let go. They don’t just get terminated. This is not a usual occurrence. For Chief Flynn to step in and make the bold decision to terminate Officer Manney’s—former Officer Manney’s employment was a step in the right direction to build more confidence with the city of Milwaukee police and the general public. However, the Milwaukee Police Association, their need to step in and be very critical of Chief Flynn does nothing but diminish the steps that Chief Flynn has taken.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Representative Barnes, your reaction—well, first of all, the reaction among the citizens of Milwaukee to this case, the protests that have been occurring and the blocking of the highway, and then Governor Walker’s decision to put the National Guard on standby?

REP. MANDELA BARNES: Well, Governor Walker is no stranger to protests and protesters. To signal that he’s going to call in the National Guard, as he did almost four years ago when we saw what became Act 10, it’s a scare tactic. And it’s a waste of taxpayer money. There had been no indication that any of the protests were going to get out of hand. There had been no indication that any of the protests would be violent. They had not been. Until this point, they remain nonviolent. There had been no arrests until the incident on the freeway.

And it’s a shame when you see not only Governor Walker, but also Sheriff Clarke, step in and feel the need to—need to bring in additional forces. This is the same thing. I make the comparison that calling in the National Guard on peaceful protesters is just like an officer firing 14 shots at an unarmed man who was sleeping in a park. This excessive use of force, this creation of fear amongst people, is what leads to the mistrust or the lack of trust, for the general public, in law enforcement. Again, Governor Walker, Sheriff Clarke, in my opinion, were both out of line for signaling the need or to call in the National Guard. It’s unnecessary. It proved unnecessary.

AMY GOODMAN: Milwaukee County Supervisor Deanna Alexander recently tweeted, quote, "Well, I broke down & bought myself a present: a 'BREATHE EASY — Don't Break the Law’ T-shirt!" Can you respond to that?

REP. MANDELA BARNES: Yes. For the same reasons that Chief Flynn basically said that he let Officer Manney go was because of lack of competence. Unfortunately, as a person who is elected to public office, this shows—and again, it’s OK, if you want to be antithetical, if you want to be the antagonist in speech. But we’re talking about human life right now. This shows an utter disrespect and disregard for human life. These were a man’s dying words, "I can’t breathe." For you to step in—

AMY GOODMAN: This was Eric Garner’s dying words in Staten Island.

REP. MANDELA BARNES: These are Eric Garner’s dying words: "I can’t breathe." For Supervisor Alexander to step in and feel the need that she needs to placate her constituency—not even her constituency, because she does represent a semi-urban population—to placate her supporters—you can kowtow to any political persuasion as you wish. This is not a left or right issue. This is not a Democrat issue, this is not a Republican issue. This is a matter of life and death. For Supervisor Alexander—

AMY GOODMAN: And she occupies the position that Governor Walker used to be in, right? The Milwaukee County—

REP. MANDELA BARNES: No. No, no, no, no, no no. No, no, Supervisor—excuse me, Governor Walker was the county executive.


REP. MANDELA BARNES: Yeah, she’s a supervisor. For her to display this utter disregard for human life shows that she has no capacity to serve in public office. And this is honestly somebody who I’ve felt that I disagree with fundamentally on many issues. Whenever I see her, typically, we—not even typically. We’re always able to have a cordial conversation. But this crosses the line. This is completely out of line to disrespect any human. My Twitter is going crazy now because somebody mentioned me in the same tweet as her, and everybody’s retweeting it, favoring it, or favoriting—I don’t know, however you say that, favoriting the tweet. And now my Twitter is going crazy because of her statements. It’s completely out of line. There is no excuse for that type of behavior, that type of—it show poor decision making.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And finally—and finally, Representative Barnes, what’s the recourse right now for those who are still seeking to get justice in the case of Dontre Hamilton and for his family?

REP. MANDELA BARNES: So, the federal investigation right now is the next step. It’s where the Hamilton family is, bringing in the Department of Justice and still just doing whatever they can to bring more attention to the situation. The more people that know about the situation, the more people that feel a level of compassion and understand that an injustice was done. And the fact that Officer Manney is not facing charges, criminal charges, at least at the state level, is very unfortunate. But the family must keep on. The family must keep pressing leaders, whether you’re an elected leader or whether you’re just a leader in your respective community. We have to continue to pay attention. We have to continue to put pressure and make sure that we have policies in place that lead to a—to creating a better, a stronger relationship with Milwaukee police, or police across the entire country, and the general populace—and the populace.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us.

REP. MANDELA BARNES: Thank you. I want to thank you guys for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Wisconsin Democratic state Representative Mandela Barnes, his Twitter handle @TheOtherMandela, speaking to us from Milwaukee.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re talking Guantánamo. Stay with us.

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