By Ron Johnson
Ostensibly, people go to war because all other avenues of protest or attempts at redress have been tried and exhausted. Black people in America have been crying and singing and marching to protest police brutality in this county since before 1619. The bloody history of treatment of freedmen in the custody of law enforcement is obese with stories and episodes from the annals of Jim Crow induced violence to the Missouri neighborhood of Big Mike Brown. Everyone knows there is nothing new about this and it’s not unique to Fergusson.
I must say in the same breath that we also know that the vast majority of American police officers are honest, hard -working professionals that strive to get it right in a frequently difficult, and almost always dangerous, job.
As a former twenty year veteran-director of the gang diversion program in Milwaukee and coordinator of a restorative justice program at Marquette University law school, I am close this population and this subject is part of my life experience.
I know many officers black and white that are just sickened by what happened on that cold November day in Cleveland to young Tamir Rice or the choking death of Eric Garner in NYC. I’ve been in conversations with cops who will tell you that the incident in Cleveland, for example, was one of the worst examples of police work they’ve ever seen. So much could have been done differently to avoid killing that 12 year-old child, playing with a toy gun all by himself in a deserted park.
Sure, it was the trigger-happy, panicked rookie that jumped out of the car with guns-a-blazing, but it was also the veteran driver who drove up so close to the kid that the deadly result was almost inevitable.
I’m not an expert on forensic science, but the incident in Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee suggests a great deal of emotion, even rage on the part of the officer. When is it ever necessary, or justified to shoot any human being 14 times? Perhaps, that’s what it should be called; the rage in Red Arrow Park. What a horrific and unforgiving way to “serve and protect”.
Even in the case with Mike Brown and officer, Darren Wilson, someone with a clearer thinking process and a cooler head could have avoided the deadly consequences of emptying a clip, center mass, in the body of an allegedly belligerent, albeit un-armed, teen-ager. We were told that Mike Brown was belligerent. We never heard his side of the story.
But even if Big Mike did all they said he did his death was still quite avoidable. Officer Wilson was literally in the driver’s seat and held all the advantages. First, he was in his squad car-a protected and mobile environment-he had a bullet-proof vest on, he had radio communication with back-up officers and he possessed an array of weapons at his disposal. Why didn’t he just role up his window, or pull forward a little bit? So many options. Was it his training, his ego or the culture of fear of big black men that is so engrained in the psyche of so many people in this society. Why is it always a white officer and a Black person? Is that merely a coincidence?
But, that’s where it happens. That’s where the rubber meets the road. At that point of contact, when the officer stops a youth…the attitudes, the words, the actions of both parties…. determine what happens next! The officer invariably is loaded with his/her fears, training, perceptions and expectations and likewise for the would-be detainee. He also has his fears and a latent distrust of law enforcement…very often he doesn’t see a human being he sees a blue uniform with a gun.
I work with a group of men and boys in an outdoor camping adventure called the Father & Son Retreat and one of the things we teach the boys at camp is how to act when stopped by police. It’s a survival skill!
Pull your car over immediately. Turn off the engine and turn on your interior lights. No sudden movements and whatever you do, don’t reach down between your legs or under the seat UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. Put your hands at 10 after ten on the steering wheel and wait for the officer to approach you. Don’t cuss, don’t get loud, tell the truth and answer questions as courteously as possible. If there is a gun in the car or anything illegal or questionable PRE- EMPT! Let the officer know what he/she is dealing with before they stumble up on something.
We can think our way out of this mess. It’s only a matter of time before it happens again. My fear is that the youth are going to start shooting back or shoot first. We need police officers and good policing in our neighborhoods and communities. Some of our neighborhoods are dangerous places, endemic with the culture of violence and an insane proliferation of guns.
Many people say, “why don’t you riot and protest when a black person kills another black person”. Well, when a black person shoots and kills someone, or chokes someone to death, we fully expect that person to be arrested, indicted and held accountable for his/her actions. When a police officer is rogue or makes an egregious mistake we, likewise, expect justice to prevail.
We know that police have a tremendous responsibility. We also know they have a great deal of power and authority. This power and almost absolute authority has got to be accompanied by and tempered with a profound understanding of the extraordinary responsibility…and restraint. ..it represents.
Rioting is the voice of the voiceless, burning and looting are the actions of those who have lost hope and no longer care.
I am a black man, a resident of Fitchburg, recently transitioned from Milwaukee.
Statement of Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs
September 30, 2014
Last week I sent a letter (attached) to the State of Wisconsin Department of Justice, asking under the provisions of Wisconsin’s Open Records law
for a copy of the report conducted by the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) into the death of Mr. Dontre Hamilton. Today marks five months to
the day since he was shot in Red Arrow Park. It is my understanding that the report was completed nearly one month ago and turned over to the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office. As, by definition, the investigation by the CID is complete, I can see no reason-legal or otherwise-why this report should now be withheld.
My hope is that the state DOJ will review this request and, as these reports are a new kind of record, affirm my belief that they are public
records subject to full disclosure. More importantly, I am also hopeful that the DOJ will release the report so that it can be shared with the
Hamilton family and the public as soon as possible. For the sake of transparency, the public deserves access to the information that is contained in the CID report, and I see no reason why it cannot be released. Unfortunately the District Attorney is still examining the case to determine whether any charges should be filed against the police officer who shot Mr. Hamilton. However, there is no legal reason, in my view, to withhold the CID report until the DA’s decision is announced.
The new state law requiring review of in-custody deaths by an outside agency has flaws, but I believe the delay in releasing information from
the investigation into the death of Mr. Hamilton is unnecessary and has made the situation for the grieving Hamilton family that much more
In the interest of providing answers for concerned members of the public, Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs announced that she has requested an update from the Milwaukee Police Department and the Fire and Police Commission regarding the officer-involved shooting in Red Arrow Park last month.
Alderwoman Coggs said that she hopes police officials can shed new light on the ongoing investigation into the shooting, which resulted in the death of a 31-year-old mentally-ill man, as well as provide some answers for the man’s grieving family. She also requested, as part of the communication file, a briefing on standard operating procedures and policies relating to officer interactions with mentally-ill people.
“When a conflict with law enforcement results in the death of a community member—especially one with mental health needs—it is paramount that we examine with utmost transparency the circumstances around that death,” Alderwoman Coggs said. “The community must be assured that every precaution is taken to safeguard the lives of its most vulnerable citizens.”
The communication is scheduled to be heard at 10:00 a.m. in the regular Public Safety Committee meeting on Thursday, May 22 in Room 301-B of City Hall, 200 E. Wells. St. The meeting begins at 9:00 a.m. and will be carried live on the City Channel and at milwaukee.gov/citychannel.
Editor’s Note: This story was submitted to an organization called Occupy Riverwest by Kelly R. Brandmeyer. Brandmeyer, while working at the Starbucks in Red Arrow Park, was an eyewitness to the shooting death of Dontre Hamilton by a Milwaukee Police officer on Wednesday, April 30.
What you’re reading is a first-hand account of the incident that occurred at Red Arrow Park last week. This account includes the observations, emotions and opinions of a person who witnessed portions of this tragic event. As a witness, she has been interviewed by the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigations, which is leading the investigation.
Occupy Riverwest is a local organization that is in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. The organization’s mission is to build community and raise the consciousness of the community to the 99 percent movement. It is a nonviolent, non-partisan organization that works with other state Occupy groups and is currently building community and connections on the East Side of Milwaukee and beyond.
Even though this only happened three days ago, I’ve recounted this story more times than I can count. But that’s okay, because this is a story that needs telling.
This story has been told in multiple places, multiple times and almost always slightly different than how I actually remember it happening. This story will not just be a retelling, but a discussion, and a realization of what is happening to not just this city, but to our American society on the whole.
This story is about Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man that lived in the Milwaukee area. I didn’t know him before this incident, but it’s clear to me that his passing leaves many friends and family in its devastating wake.
On Wednesday, April 30th, Dontre lost his life in an event that was totally unnecessary and preventable.
I work as a barista at Starbucks, Red Arrow Park in downtown Milwaukee. I was working that Wednesday from 12-7:30 pm, and there was nothing to indicate that this day would be out of the ordinary. Our current building is being renovated, so we were serving coffee out of a mobile café trailer designed by Starbucks.
Around 1p.m., my coworker and I noticed a man sleeping fairly close to where we have set up shop. He lay sleeping next to the big, stone red arrow, the landmark and namesake of the park. As per Starbucks policy, if we are uncertain or uncomfortable around a sleeping individual (or somebody that may be passed out), we are to call a non-emergency line to prevent any potential conflict – and that is precisely what was done.
A short while later, I took my first break of the day. I sat outside of the trailer, on a bench that was behind the trailer and the arrow. I had full view of Dontre merely sleeping underneath the arrow.
To be clear, I never saw Dontre get up, walk around, panhandle, or even speak to anyone. A few minutes later, two officers approached him on foot to check him out. I could see them speaking with Dontre, who sat up to address and answer their questions.
From the body language of both parties, nothing seemed out of place, nobody was tense, things were seemingly frictionless. It was probably a five-minute conversation, then the officers walked away. They didn’t escort him out or forcibly move him. To me, this indicated that there was no problem, no issue, and that there was no conflict here.
Once my break was over (approximately ten minutes), I walked back inside the trailer. I immediately was told by my coworker that they had called the non-emergency line a second time because Dontre was still there. At this moment, I was extremely frustrated with this. It was so obvious to me that Dontre was doing nothing illegal by being there, so calling the cops was only a waste of their time and resources. In that moment, I was heated enough to make a comment to my coworker about their persistence in this issue – I totally disagreed with heavy-handedly removing people that just want a place to exist.
About five or so minutes later, the same two officers approached our trailer café and asked if we were the ones calling them. My coworker informed them that it was them who called, and that they were worried about the presence of Dontre so close to our café, condiment bar, and the possible negative impact on the business. The officers informed them that Dontre was doing nothing illegal, there was nothing for them to enforce, and that we should stop calling. My coworker, obviously unsatisfied with the result, reluctantly let the issue drop. After that, there was some minor squabbling among ourselves because I didn’t like the way the issue was dealt with. I’m not a believer in removing things from my environment just because I’m uncomfortable with it, especially if we’re talking about another human being – and doubly especially for one that is doing absolutely nothing to anyone else.
I was wholly caught off guard for what would occur next. I didn’t see the entire event unfold. I was only alerted to the presence of another officer, after trouble had already started.
Around 3:30pm, I heard a man yelling something to the effect of “HEY!”, and then I moved to the window to see what was happening. At that moment, I saw a white police officer standing off against Dontre, who was holding the officer’s own baton in a defensive posture against said officer. I didn’t see the beginning of the fight or how it broke out, but I never once saw Dontre strike the officer with the baton. Again, I never witnessed the baton in Dontre’s hand make contact with the officer. I’ve seen it reported that Dontre struck the officer’s head repeatedly with the baton-and it may have happened near the beginning of the fight-but I never saw it and neither did my coworker. During this fight, I hear my coworker exclaim “That’s Chris,” who is our beat cop for the area. He is better known among the employees that have been at that location for longer.
Chris, currently unarmed since he lost his baton, lunged at Dontre to retrieve his weapon but missed. I never witnessed Dontre attack Chris. Dontre only reacted to Chris’ lunge, in what appeared to be, a purely defensive way. After missing, Chris was frozen for a second, then reached down for his side arm. When he pulled this weapon out, I had a sickly feeling about what was going to happen next. Chris didn’t say anything to Dontre. Nothing like “calm down”, or “back away”, or anything of the sort, with his brandished firearm. He had his gun pointed at Dontre from about 10 feet away for a couple seconds. That’s when I heard the shots.
I counted the shots as they happened. I guess I expected Chris to just disable him, so I didn’t know how many shots to expect. I counted 3…then 5…then 7…then 10 all in very quick succession. Surely a trained police officer could have disabled Dontre without putting 10 bullets into him. With the rapid, rhythmic fire, there was no way Chris was stopping to check if Dontre was still alive. Count to 10 in your head in a fast-paced, rhythmic manner and ask yourself if you’re shooting to kill. While my cynical side knew what was going to happen to Dontre and compelled me to turn away, my coworker didn’t. They saw the whole thing play out. They will tell you the same thing about how once that gun was pulled out, it was Dontre’s end.
So here we are, a few days later, still wondering how something like that could happen. Why is it that two officers previously were able to arrive on the scene, talk to Dontre, establish that nothing was wrong or required their intervention then be able to leave peacefully? I didn’t get the name of those two officers, but I wish I could tell them that I appreciate them for doing their job as a protector of the people involved that day.
I still have questions: Why was Chris there? Was he called out to triple-check the situation since there were two previous calls in the area? Also, why didn’t he come talk to my coworker or me first?
I don’t understand why we weren’t alerted to his presence. Maybe that’s not our right, or that we are not owed that from a police officer on duty, but we are the ones that made the call to begin with.
Why did Chris not say something to Dontre to try to diffuse the situation? The situation went from baton to a firearm. Was there no other option to subdue Dontre? He didn’t even try using his words before pulling out a gun.
Why didn’t he just try to disable Dontre? I never saw where the officer shot, but my coworker told me he started at the ribcage and moved upward. If that’s true, why did it take 10 shots?
These seem like reasonable questions that anyone not familiar with police protocol would ask. My coworker is the one who recognized that it was Chris, and once I realized who that was, I felt horrible. In asking myself these questions, it dawned on me that I had experienced something unsavory with this particular officer before.
It was November of 2013, and I had just recently transferred to the Red Arrow Park Starbucks. Since our building is connected to a park building, some of the facilities are actually owned by the city (such as the bathrooms). We often have people coming in to warm themselves by the fireplace in our store – including homeless people.
A few of them try to do illegal substances in the bathrooms where they think we can’t do anything about it, but we are often calling authorities when there is any kind of illegal activities going on in our bathroom.
On one such evening when a call was made, Chris and another officer reported to the scene. As Chris went to move out any non-paying customers, I made a comment about how homeless people were just trying to keep warm and weren’t a problem.
I felt bad that he was kicking them out for no reason. He responded with something along the lines of how the people in that position are homeless by their own doing and are now laying in the bed they’ve made.
That isn’t a direct quote. I don’t remember exactly what was said, as at the time I didn’t think I’d need to recount it as something relevant. I just remember getting a dark vibe from Chris that night.
I realize my anecdotal evidence alone doesn’t prove anything about the incident last Wednesday, but it makes me skeptical.
It gives me enough to reasonably question it. With all of these factors combined, I ask myself if it was someone who was looking for a fight, if it was someone looking to “clear out the trash”.
We capture more cases of police brutality now than ever. I only learned recently that Dontre suffered from mental illness, specifically schizophrenia.
Dontre had been awake for days before the incident Wednesday and had been walking a long distance before finally resting underneath our arrow at Red Arrow Park. He was sleeping because he was exhausted, and he was only waiting for a ride from his brother.
It’s extremely hard to speculate about a police officer trying to do his/her job, but this isn’t the first case of this happening.
In 2011, Fullerton police officers beat a schizophrenic man named Kelly Thomas so badly that he died from his injuries. Despite extensive video evidence from multiple sources, the police officer involved was acquitted.
This is an extremely similar case: a man with schizophrenia meets an untimely end, with no clear answer as to what provoked the situation or why it was allowed to progress to the state it did.
The ACLU made a statement inferring that the DA that was in charge of the case regarding Kelly Thomas was incapable of impartially handling it. In Wisconsin, there is a new law requiring two outside agencies, aside from the DA, to investigate a case when there is a shooting involving a police officer. This may aid the impartiality that can exist in a department the ACLU cited, but this is the first case that the new law has been applied to.
I gave a statement to the DA and a table-full of agency heads, but I hope it was worth something. I hope this is different than the case with Kelly Thomas, where somebody ended up dead and the department scrambled to protect their own.
I’ve seen and read some terrible things regarding Dontre’s case when discussing it with people. There has been a lot of support for him, but also a lot of opinions from people that don’t fully understand the story or they’ve never had a friend or loved one with a mental illness.
They make the assumption that the officer approached the situation with a clear head, therefore not making a mistake.
Why do we assume that the victim deserved their fate if they ended up dead in a confrontation with a police officer?
At the end of the day, what were Dontre’s crimes? He was a man taking a rest in a public park on a warm afternoon. He was doing nothing wrong. This is reinforced by the fact that TWO officers before were able to communicate and check him out without issue.
So what happened the third time? How many things could have happened differently? What he was doing was not illegal. Was Chris incapable or unable of handling this situation differently?
Or has this become a place where we award mental illness with the death penalty?