A new Wisconsin law was supposed to get justice for slain victims of police shootings, like Dontre Hamilton. Here’s what happened.
The second time the two Milwaukee police officers were called to Red Arrow Park about Dontre Hamilton sleeping on the bench, the cops went right up to the Starbucks first.
The police told the baristas who placed the call, “He’s doing nothing illegal, there was nothing to enforce, and we should stop calling,” according to a written account posted online by one of the Starbucks employees working that day, Kelly Brandmeyer.
An hour later, a third officer showed up. The baristas recognized Officer Chris Manney, the beat cop in their neighborhood. Manney was responding to a voicemail from dispatch and had no idea that two other officers had already checked on the sleeping man, twice. Manney approached Dontre.
Fourteen shots later, Dontre Hamilton was dead.
Over eight hours later, around midnight on April 30, 2014, 31-year-old Dontre Hamilton’s family found out he had been shot and killed by a police officer. For the next five months, Officer Chris Manney’s name was kept out of the media. Hamilton’s death provoked fresh outrage in a community already frustrated over past incidents and has tested a new state law meant to hold police officers accountable for deadly shootings.
Six months later, the district attorney is still unable to tell the Hamiltons if the officer who shot Dontre 14 times that day will be charged with a crime.
“We’re a family and we’re motivated to do what we have to do for our brother,” said Dameion Perkins, Dontre’s brother. “But have we sat down and really cried our last cry? I can’t tell you that we have.”
Dontre Hamilton, his mother Maria, and his two older brothers, Dameion and Nate, moved to Milwaukee from Gary, Indiana, in 1995.
Maria wanted to get her sons away from the gang violence in Gary. All the boys played sports and were often out after games when a lot of the gang fights broke out. “I decided I didn’t want my sons to be statistics,” Maria told BuzzFeed News.
The Hamilton brothers were close. “I’m 12 months older than Dontre,” Nate told BuzzFeed News. “He didn’t have too many friends that I didn’t know, and vice versa.”
As a teenager in high school in Milwaukee, Dontre earned himself the nickname “Macho.”
“He got in a few fights,” Nate said. “We’d be like, what, you think you macho?”
Then Dontre got into football and lifting weights, and the name Macho just stuck. Especially years later when Dontre became Uncle Macho.
“They’d say they love their Uncle Macho,” Nate said, referring to his 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. “He’d take them to get juices, chips, and he always had a bag of Twizzlers on him for the kids.”
“If we wanted to go out to dinner in an adult-type setting, Dontre was like, â€˜I’ll stay with the kids and order pizza,'” Maria said.
Dontre, his mother, and his brothers all lived in the Milwaukee area within 20 minutes of each other. Dontre and Nate worked together too at Nate’s home improvement company. It was a trade that Dontre got Nate into.
“He started doing roofing and I followed him to work one day,” Nate said.
In 2009, Dontre moved in with his mom after she had an accident.
“I cut off part of my index finger,” Maria said. “He became my nurse.”
At some point over the 18 months that Dontre lived with his mom, Maria started seeing signs that something was going on with Dontre.
“He would try to talk me out of having company at the house,” Maria said.
Maria would occasionally hear Dontre talking at night. The next day she’d ask, “Were you on the phone last night?” He’d say, “No, I was looking out.”
On Feb. 10, 2013, the family first realized Dontre was ill. He was having thoughts that his mother and his brother were being tortured. “He didn’t want to live if he thought we were all going to be dead,” Maria said.
Dontre stabbed himself in the neck at his apartment complex. He didn’t even know that he harmed himself until he went to a family friend’s house.
“My godson was like, â€˜Dude, what happened to you?'” Maria said. “That’s when Dontre looked in the mirror and saw that he had injured himself.”
That same day, Dontre was brought to a mental health facility and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, his family told BuzzFeed News.
The Hamiltons still don’t know everything that happened on the day that Dontre harmed himself. Dontre told his family that he also hit a man outside his apartment with a shovel, but they never found a shovel, and nobody came forward to say that it actually happened.
“It was like the whole thing played out in his mind,” Nate said.
While he was in the hospital, Dontre’s family was told by the other tenants that he could not return to the apartment complex. His brothers were allowed to go over and pick up his stuff.
Over the next year, Dontre would have ups and downs. He found a medication to help him manage his paranoia, and there were no more violent episodes. After a stint in the hospital, he got another apartment in Milwaukee and was able to keep living his life.
“I know what the speculations are, that a person with mental issues can’t take care of themselves,” Dameion said. “Dontre had a car. He was able to maintain a job. He took care of himself just as any other person would. He was a man on his own.”
But Dontre still struggled with his illness. “A week before the shooting happened, I felt he was getting more and more paranoid,” Maria said.
In late April 2014, Maria arranged for an ambulance to go over to Dontre’s apartment and check on her son. They told her that Dontre would be fine until his next doctor’s appointment on May 7. The mental health workers told Maria, “He didn’t look as though he was a harm to himself or anybody else.”
When she spoke to Dontre, Maria said, “He was really paranoid though, saying that something was going on in another part of the house.” Dontre also told Nate he was hearing sounds coming from the attic.
Dontre told his family his power was out and he had decided to leave his apartment and go to a hotel so he could watch TV and rest. “He didn’t want to stay there in the dark himself,” Nate said.
Maria’s last conversation with Dontre came a few days later on the morning of April 30. Dontre still didn’t want to go back to his apartment and was planning to leave the hotel and meet Nate in Red Arrow Park, so he could go over to Nate’s house. At around 3:15 p.m., Maria spoke to Nate, who was on his way to meet Dontre. But it would be too late.
Dontre was “lying on his back … hands turned up, eyes closed and one leg bent at the knee and rapidly twitching back and forth” when Manney encountered him in the park, according to a memo obtained by BuzzFeed News that Manney wrote to Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn.
Witnesses said that Manney woke up Dontre abruptly. Manney said in his report that Dontre woke up on his own, suddenly, and peered right through him with a “1,000 yard stare.” Manney said he thought Dontre might have been on drugs or alcohol, suffering from mental illness, and posed “a significant threat to my safety.”
Manney said he saw “bulges” in Dontre’s clothes that could have been a weapon. He thought Dontre may have been homeless, and in his experience, homeless people “carry their whole life with them.”
According to the Milwaukee Police Department, Manney correctly identified Dontre as an EDP, an “emotionally disturbed person,” but then decided to pat Dontre down — a direct violation of MPD training and policy when dealing with an EDP who posed no immediate criminal threat. That’s when the altercation happened.
According to the MPD, Manney “touched the front of Mr. Hamilton’s chest, Mr. Hamilton put his arms down, and a physical confrontation ensued.” Manney took out his baton to try to subdue Dontre, but Dontre took Manney’s baton and allegedly struck him with it on the neck and head. Then Manney pulled his service weapon.
Starbucks barista Kelly Brandmeyer wrote that she tried to count the shots as they rang out. “I counted 3…then 5…then 10 all in quick succession.”
Milwaukee officials later said that Hamilton was shot 14 times.
Maria Hamilton got the call from the detective at around midnight on April 30. She hadn’t watched TV all day and was unaware that there had been a shooting in Red Arrow Park.
“Ma’am, where are you located? We need to come speak to you in person,” the detective said.
“Well, I’m by myself. That’s not a good idea,” Maria replied.
Reluctant to deal with the police alone, she hung up the phone and called Dameion. He said he’d be there in 20 minutes.
When the police showed up, Maria Hamilton said the officers put her in the back of a squad car and interrogated her for the next 30 minutes.
“They asked me about me and my family, if my kids were close, when was the last time I saw my kids,” Maria said.
Dameion arrived at his mom’s house and the police wouldn’t let him get near Maria. “As soon as I got out of the car, the detective met me and was like, â€˜Are you Dameion?’
“Then I heard the loudest scream ever,” Dameion said.
“They said, well, your son was in an altercation with an officer and we’re sorry to inform you that he is now deceased,” Maria said. “At that point, I just lost it.”
Police had Dameion identify Dontre from a picture. He said he was told that the delay in letting the family know what happened was because Dontre didn’t have an ID on him. The Hamiltons would later find out that wasn’t true.
“From that moment I got to my mom, I feel that the family has been disrespected,” Dameion said.
The next day, Chief Ed Flynn told the press Dontre Hamilton was a “violent, combative, mentally ill individual” with a criminal history.
Local television showed a mugshot of Dontre Hamilton taken from a previous arrest for outstanding moving violations.
“They made him look like he was a suspect and he deserved to die that day,” Nate said.
“That made us mad as hell,” Maria said.
“He was just diagnosed last February. They put it out like he was mentally ill running in the streets going crazy,” Dameion said. “That wasn’t him.”
It would take months and one shocking demonstration to get the city officials to issue any sort of retraction for demonizing Dontre.
On Sept. 2, 2014, the Hamilton family and supporters carried a wooden casket right into City Hall. Nate built the casket in his basement that morning. He wrote Dontre’s name and the names of other victims of police shootings on the wooden box.
“We felt we had to dramatize the situation,” Nate said.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, alarmed by the protest outside his office, agreed to meet with the family. He publicly apologized for the character assassination of Dontre Hamilton by the police. The family was still looking for Chief Flynn to do that himself.
“The mayor [apologized] on his behalf. And we still didn’t feel that was appropriate. Anyone that makes a statement should be able to retract it on their own,” Nate said.
Two other police shootings in Wisconsin shaped the police and community response to Hamilton’s death.
In 2004, Michael Bell Jr. was stopped for a suspected DUI outside his Kenosha home. Bell got out of his car and was shot in the temple and killed by Officer Albert Gonzales after an altercation where Gonzales’s partner, Officer Erich Strausbaugh, screamed out that Bell had taken his gun. In fact, Strausbaugh’s gun had gotten caught on the squad car mirror.
After the incident, both cops were cleared of any wrongdoing by the local police chief.
Six years passed before federal investigators into his son’s shooting awarded Michael Bell Sr. a $1.75 million settlement. Investigators said the officers’ testimonies didn’t align with the medical examiner’s findings. On Oct. 31, 2012, Strausbaugh took his own life.
Bell Sr. used the settlement money awarded him in 2010 and his own savings to fight to pass a bill to reform officer-involved shooting investigations in Wisconsin. The goal was to bar police from investigating the shooting of a civilian when one of their colleagues from the same department is involved.
The bill was unpopular with unions and Wisconsin’s right-leaning legislature. Two years into the struggle, in 2012, Bell Sr. connected with a likely ally: Amelia Royko Maurer, whose friend and roommate was shot and killed by police in Madison, Wisconsin.
In 2012, almost eight years to the day after Michael Bell Jr. was shot, 30-year-old Paulie Heenan came home to his apartment building at 2:30 a.m. He had moved into the building just nine days earlier with Royko Maurer and her family.
Heenan was intoxicated and accidentally walked into the wrong apartment. Madison police responded to the scene and Officer Stephen Heimsness shot and killed Heenan.
Heimsness would be cleared of any wrongdoing just days later. Then, Royko Maurer and her husband, Nate, started digging.
Royko Maurer said she eventually found out that Heimsness had numerous other complaints against him within the Madison Police Department, had joked on an online message board about shooting his dispatch, and had been involved in a hazing incident where he took a female officer’s service weapon and hid it.
Royko Maurer prepared a complaint for the Police and Fire Commission. But before she could file it, Heimsness was allowed to resign and apply for disability.
After the failed attempt to get justice for her friend, Royko Maurer began working with Bell to push for the new law that called for independent investigations into police shootings.
In 2014, Royko Maurer and Bell Sr. brought state representatives from different sides of the aisle, Republican Garey Bies and Democrat Chris Taylor, together to push Wisconsin Assembly Bill 409 through the state assembly.
Last April, Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill requiring police shootings to be investigated independently. At the signing of the bill, Walker spent 45 minutes with Mike Bell Sr., his family, and other families of police shooting victims.
In August 2014 after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, Walker went on CNN and boasted about the bill and suggested similar legislation in Missouri could help.
“Last year I signed a law, in fact, I think it’s the first law in the country that removes the review of a shooting death by a law enforcement official from that agency,” Walker said in the interview. “I think in those instances the more objective, the more removed it can be, I think it eases some of those tensions, because obviously [Ferguson] is inflamed.”
Back in April, just seven days after Walker signed the police shooting bill into law, Officer Chris Manney shot Dontre Hamilton. It was one of the first cases investigated under the new law. Dontre’s death was to be investigated by the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and the district attorney, and not by the Milwaukee PD, where Manney worked.
As soon as Dontre was shot, Royko Maurer started calling DCI to make sure the law was being followed and they were handling the investigation of his death.
Shortly after Hamilton’s death, Royko Maurer said she spoke to numerous DCI employees. Some hadn’t heard of the case. One DCI employee told her that the agency was doing what it always did in investigations involving crimes in Milwaukee: “Supporting MPD.”
Royko Maurer filed an open records request to determine who at DCI was leading the Hamilton investigation, but couldn’t get DCI to tell her who the agents in charge were.
Then in early October 2014, an investigation by WISN 12 News revealed that “the two agents most involved in the case are highly regarded investigators” whose decades at MPD overlapped with Chris Manney. Both men, Special Agents David Klabunde and Gilbert Hernandez, are collecting MPD pensions worth around $5,000 a month.
To the Hamiltons, this was a sign that the new law isn’t being followed and that the DCI investigation is not as independent as one would assume.
“I’m pretty sure that [DCI] have investigators who are not from the Milwaukee Police Department who would have been better to put on the case,” Nate said.
On Oct. 15, Nate Hamilton got a call from his attorney, telling him to be at the municipal building in 45 minutes. Something was going to be announced in Dontre’s case.
“We rushed over there. And they wouldn’t allow us to come up,” Nate said.
The Hamilton family sat outside and watched a local live stream on an iPhone as Chief Ed Flynn addressed the media.
Flynn, who had earlier described Hamilton as a dangerous criminal, announced that as a result of his internal investigation he was terminating Manney.
Flynn said that Manney violated his training and department policy when he approached Dontre Hamilton and executed an “out-of-policy pat-down.”
Flynn told the press that he fired Manney solely based on his decision to execute the pat-down of a mentally ill man who was posing no threat, in violation of police guidelines.
“This was not a call of a mentally ill man waving a gun, this was not a call of a mentally ill man threatening to kill people. This was a check the welfare call,” Flynn said. “Tactics matter. Approach matters. If the outcome had been benign we’d be looking at a training issue. But the outcome matters.”
Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News reveal that in the weeks leading up to the firing, both MPD and Manney struggled over the proper way to have handled the situation in Red Arrow Park on April 30.
The documents show the MPD and Manney jousting over whether Hamilton should have been considered dangerous, and whether Manney’s actions were appropriate.
Manney argued that based on Dontre’s behavior when he approached him, Dontre posed “significant threat to my safety.” But he contradicts himself later when defending his attempt to frisk Dontre, stating that Dontre “presented no known threat and actually appeared to be cooperating when he stood up and put his arms out” when he first woke up.
Flynn told reporters Manney’s actions following the pat-down were justified. “If you’re asking my opinion,” Flynn said, “the use of deadly force by the time it was used was needed to stop a legitimately perceived threat of imminent bodily harm.”
Flynn also dismissed criticisms that the “independent” investigators were too close to the MPD, and defended his decision to conduct an internal review. “The law allows for [the MPD] to conduct our internal investigation that has to do with whether the officer complied with department policies and procedures,” Flynn told reporters at the news conference.
The Milwaukee Police Association was outraged.
Flynn’s “political concerns outweigh his public safety concerns,” the union said in a statement released the day after Manney’s firing. Firing Manney was an act of “cowardice” by a “confused” Flynn.
Flynn had faced some bad press following the Hamilton shooting. In September, five months after the Hamilton shooting, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a report criticizing the MPD and Flynn for not fulfilling a 2004 promise to improve the department’s Crisis Intervention Training for dealing with mentally ill individuals. Only 1 in 5 MPD officials had actually received CIT training.
At the news conference announcing the firing, Flynn acknowledged that Chris Manney was not one of them.
On Oct. 30, the Milwaukee Police Union held its first “no confidence vote” for a Milwaukee police chief in 20 years. The union said that the majority of its 1,600 members voted and 99.3% voted no confidence in Flynn based on his decision to fire Manney.
“The firing represents nothing more than political appeasement,” said Mike Crivello, union president. Crivello refused to divulge exactly how many members showed up to vote.
Flynn brushed off the union’s rebuke.
“They’ve made their point. Time to get back to work,” Flynn responded. “My kids when they turned teenagers voted â€˜no confidence” in me more than once, and they turned out all right. I suspect the coppers will turn out all right.”
Activists supporting the Hamilton family have expressed support for the chief’s decision to fire Manney for the illegal pat-down.
Curtis Sails, a local activist working with the Hamiltons to host rallies and demonstrations in Milwaukee, called the firing “a step in the right direction.”
Michael Bell Sr., who worked to pass the new legislation on police shootings, sent an email to Flynn following the firing that Bell shared with BuzzFeed News, subject line “Gutsy Call.”
“You have been in the hot seat for some time. I just want to commend you on your gutsy call. I think your decision has more ramifications than you know,” Bell wrote. “From my viewpoint, you provided a solution between the world of law enforcement’s right to protect itself and the community’s need to reel in senseless loss of life.”
“The MPPA has no idea the courage it took take to make that call, but I do,” Bell added.
Flynn responded to Bell’s email, telling him, “I appreciate your perceptive and supportive words.”
“Rather than fire him for the shooting, he fired him for the behavior that led up the shooting,” Janine Geske, former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, told BuzzFeed News. “People may not like that.”
Geske, now a law professor at Marquette University, said that while firing an officer for an illegal pat-down is unusual, Flynn didn’t engage in any wrongdoing under the new law by firing Manney.
“The chief obviously wanted to move quickly.”
Manney’s firing is also consequential because it’s unusual that police involved in civilian shootings are punished at all.
Officer Darren Wilson, whose shooting of Michael Brown set off protests in Ferguson, Missouri, has still not been arrested. A grand jury hearing on the incident entered its third month and evidence is reportedly still being presented.
In January 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Randall Kerrick, who fatally shot unarmed black man Jonathan Ferrell 10 times in North Carolina.
While Milwaukee police battle internally over Manney’s fate, the Hamilton family is struggling to get specific information from District Attorney John Chisholm, who is running the independent criminal investigation.
“Yes, he’s been fired,” Dameion said. “But we’re still waiting on a decision whether or not this man is going to be charged or just let go and left alone.”
If the DA decides not to charge Manney, then the next step for the family would be to see if the Wisconsin United States Attorney’s office will pursue criminal charges under federal law. The Hamiltons and their lawyers are already preparing for this.
“We have been in contact with [the U.S. Attorney’s] office in Milwaukee already,” Jonathan Safran, lawyer for the Hamiltons, told BuzzFeed News. “They are monitoring the case but generally would only actively investigate and make a federal charging decision if the DA chose not to pursue state criminal charges or if the charges were pursued and there was an acquittal of the officer.”
Four and a half months after Dontre was killed, the Hamilton family met with the DA. He told them it would be at least another month before Chisholm would announce his decision. Eight more weeks have passed since that meeting, with no news from Chisholm.
“The way it’s going, they’re saying, â€˜Hey, this will take as long as it takes,'” Nate said. “â€˜If it takes another year, it takes another year. You guys will just have to wait.'”