We Failed Dontre Hamilton

In April, a man named Dontre Hamilton was shot and killed in Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee, WI, not far from where I live. In a pattern that has become all-too familiar across the country over the last several months, Hamilton, an unarmed black man, was killed by Officer Christopher Manney, a white policeman.

It was announced this morning that Officer Manney, who had previously been fired from the Milwaukee PD in relation to the fatal shooting, (a firing he is appealing) would not be indicted for killing Hamilton.

In this way, the case closely echoes the tragic circumstances of recent events in Ferguson and New York, but there’s even more to it than that. In many ways, the circumstances leading up to this killing were even worse, more inexcusable than those surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, or even Eric Garner.

On the day of his death, Dontre Hamilton hadn’t stolen cigarillos, or even dodged tobacco taxes by selling loose cigarettes. Instead, he had been sleeping in a public park. Earlier in the day, employees of a Starbucks overlooking Red Arrow Park had twice called the police trying to drive Hamilton away as a nuisance. Two other officers responded to the call and found the Hamilton was committing no crime whatsoever, and was within his rights to be in a public park. After checking on his welfare, they left without incident.

Seemingly unsatisfied with Mr. Hamilton’s continued peaceful existence in a public space, employees of the Starbucks called the police again and hit the jackpot with Office Manney. Unaware of the previous visit from fellow officers, Manney responded to a voicemail he’d received earlier requesting a welfare check on Mr. Hamilton. But instead of checking his welfare, Manney immediately approached Hamilton as a potential criminal and began harassing and attempting to frisk him for drugs or weapons, despite lacking any probable cause to do so.

This is where things go wrong. After already dealing with police once earlier in the day and being told he was doing nothing wrong, Hamilton became agitated at the treatment he was receiving from Manney. Treatment, it should be noted, which would later be grounds for his termination from the MPD. An altercation ensued and punches were exchanged. Manney pulled out his baton to try and subdue Hamilton, but it was wrestled away. At this point, Manney pulled his sidearm and emptied the magazine, shooting Hamilton fourteen times in the process.

Excessive force? Oh yeah. If you actually had to shoot something fourteen times to incapacitate it, what you really need is an A-10C Warthog, not a handgun. But, once again, Manney will not be facing any criminal charges in the killing. The DA believes it was self-defense and that’s the end of it. Although I must say that in this case, the DA had the guts to make the non-indictment call all by themselves instead of making a farce of the grand jury process as happened in Ferguson.

I have a joke I wrote in the wake of the Brown grand jury decision that goes like this:

“What do you call a group of crows? A Murder. What do you call a group of white crows? An Insufficient Evidence to Indict.”

I told that joke on stage the night after Ferguson to a great response, then figured I’d put it in the trunk unless it became topical again in the future. I was telling it a week later after the Garner decision. Now, less than a month later, I’ll be telling it to crowds again, and getting angrier each time.

It would be very easy, then, to slap Hamilton’s death up there with those of Brown and Garner as yet another example of police brutality aimed against black people going unpunished. It may be the best example of the three, in fact. But there are more layers to this story. How Dontre Hamilton died was simply the last in a long list of failures on the part of society to save him.

You see, Mr. Hamilton was homeless, and suffered from schizophrenia. Homelessness is a scourge in our cities, and Milwaukee is no exception. Since the economic downturn of 2008, the city’s homeless population has grown. But instead of attacking the underlying economic factors driving the epidemic, we’ve cut public programs through ill-conceived budget austerity measures. The same pattern has repeated in many states throughout the country, attacking the programs designed to help people in need and demonizing the people instead of the problem.

The same holds true for the sad state of our nation’s mental health infrastructure. In decades past, we maintained homes and institutions for those suffering from severe mental illnesses. But by the mid 90’s, most of these facilities had been shuttered. Their patients didn’t disappear, however. Instead, unable to afford the treatment, counseling, and medications they needed, most were left out in the cold, including an embarrassing percentage of former veterans suffering from PTSD and other ailments after returning from Vietnam, the Gulf War, and now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The mentally ill make up a disproportionate number of both the homeless, as well as our nation’s burgeoning prison population. Some estimates run as high as sixty-plus percent of inmates suffer from one or more serious mental conditions. Prisons and the streets have become the de facto dumping grounds for people, like Dontre Hamilton, who simply don’t have the capacity to fully integrate into society.

The institutions may have closed, but we’re still paying the price to handle the issue of mental illness in this country, except now we’re doing it in the most inefficient and inhumane way possible.

It would be easy to just point a finger at the policeman who shot Dontre Hamilton, or to see it in the simple black and white of the sad state of race relations in this country. And you wouldn’t be wrong for doing so. But as the protests erupt and the excuses start flying, remember how Hamilton came to be in Red Arrow Park that day. Through our collective inaction on any number of important issues, we all helped to put him in front of that gun.

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