The death of Dontre Hamilton, and Monday’s decision not to charge the officer who killed him in Milwaukee this spring, is just another bad deja vu. At some point you just get so numb to it, so unsurprised by it. What a lot of people, including me, gather from these killings is that whoever you are—old, young, mental health issues or not—a good number of police officers will view you as a criminal if you just happen to have dark skin.
Hamilton’s autopsy report reads like the record of an execution. He was shot 14 times. Once in the neck, once in each shoulder, six times in the chest, four times in the arms and forearms and finally, once in the back.
Former officer Christopher Manney was relieved of his duties last October. It wasn’t for shooting an unarmed, black, and mentally unstable citizen 14 times, though. Actually, it was for performing an illegal pat-down on Hamilton prior to their altercation. I guess the murder was kosher to the Milwaukee police, but the pat-down broke the rules. It’s because of illogical practices like this that people see the whole system as indifferent to the injustices experienced by blacks.
Whether accurate or not, this is the shared perception of a lot of people I grew up around in the inner city. Most people see the police as interlopers and believe that problems only get worse when the police come around––the opposite of the supposed intent of law enforcement. Killing unarmed citizens has become routine.
These cases aren’t just strings of coincidences; they reveal police tactics nationwide that seem to embrace racial profiling. I get it: a cop’s job is one of the toughest there is. But with these cases, along with a huge increase in police militarization over the past few years, it should be clear that the way the law is being enforced in this country is destroying trust in our justice system.
Instead of being receptive to the grievances of the people who live and work in the places their officers patrol, top law enforcement officials across the country seem to be incredibly tone-deaf and actively hostile to the very people they are supposed to be protecting. Worse, they come off as unaccountable, even after citizens are killed, defending the hubris and the negligence of the police officers involved.
Milwaukee County Sheriff and Cleavon Little impersonator David A. Clarke this past week sent out tweets referring to protesters as “anarchist groups.” He also said that “There is no need to retrain police in America.” Most alarming is Clarke’s claim that “Our U.S. system of justice is NOT broken.”
Sheriff Clarke, a high-profile African American official who is treating the deaths of Dontre Hamilton and other unarmed black men as no big deal, is extremely popular on rightwing talk radio and the Fox News Channel. He has focused on breaking up peaceful protests, and dismissed the suggestion that Milwaukee should address racial profiling or unwarranted shootings by police.
But despite the toxic atmosphere created by Sheriff Clark and his supporters, there are people in city goverment taking steps to right these wrongs. Eight members of the Milwaukee Common Council recently voted to support buying body cameras for all city police officers at an accelerated pace over the next few years. Police Chief Ed Flynn has been making strides with his community policing initiatives as well. But unless the city becomes more responsive, and more serious about making change, to a lot of Milwaukee residents, tragic cases like Dontre Hamilton’s will look like more of the same.
Miles Brown is a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who grew up in Milwaukee.