This weekend, I heard a story on NPR about a police shooting of an African American man in Milwaukee in May 2014. A bystander called the police, asking them to check on Dontre Hamilton, who was in a public park in Milwaukee. Two other officers had checked on Hamilton, and, deciding he did not pose a threat, left him alone. A third police officer, Christopher Manney (a white man), responded to the call in the middle of the night. He began by trying to rouse Hamilton – who, by all accounts, was asleep and upon waking, seemed disoriented and quite possibly in the middle of mental health episode – then tried to pat him down. Hamilton resisted the pat-down, Manney responded by using his baton, Hamilton took his baton away and began hitting Manney. In the end, Manney drew his weapon, shot, and killed Hamilton.
The DA recently found Manney not guilty of a crime because he was defending himself. And the Police Chief of Milwaukee, Edward Flynn, fired Manney for breaching department protocol by attempting to put his hands on a mentally-disturbed person. So while Manney is not guilty of a crime, he lost his job for not following department protocol, which requires officers to refrain from making physical contact with mentally disturbed persons unless they are a clear danger to themselves or others.
There are two different community responses to this event. One group – many African American community members, Hamilton’s family, activists involved with BlackLivesMatter – remain highly critical of police brutality and/or excessive use of force*, and are highly critical of the DA’s failure to indict Manney. Another group – the police union, Manney’s family, many white citizens – are pleased with Manney’s acquittal, but highly critical of the police chief for firing Manney. Just to see how the two sides address the issue, here are two media accounts of the December community meeting: one, here, is the NPR recounting of the events, and another, here, is a private blog post about the events (and clearly coming from a more libertarian point of view).
The events themselves display many of the challenges we find in the study of race and law. It turns out that community members literally see and understand ‘what law is’ and ‘who it serves’ differently. What’s fascinating in this case is that the outcome seems like a Solomon-esque solution: the DA doesn’t charge the officer but the officer loses his job. No one is happy, but everyone got part of what they thought justice was. The police chief, Ed Flynn, also sent a clear sign about following the regulations regarding police officer to citizen physical contact.
But the part of the story I found most heart-breaking was the police chief’s response after the community hearing in December. Chief Flynn is asked why he was on the phone during this contentious hearing. Flynn responds that he was keeping abreast of developments in a drive-by shooting of a 5 year old girl who was sitting on her father’s lap (see his response here: it’s worth watching – powerful and emotional).
Here’s a quote from his comments: “80% of my homicide victims every year are African American. 80% of our aggravated assault victims are African American. 80% of our shooting victims who survive their shootings are African American. Now they know all about the last three people killed by the Milwaukee Police Department over the course of the last several years. There’s not one of them can name one of the last three homicide victims we’ve had in this city.”
There’s a lot going on here. It seems to me that Chief Flynn is pointing out something terrible and true – while police violence is often directed more frequently at African Americans, African Americans suffer far more harms from their fellow citizens than whites do, and that we don’t talk about that nearly enough. The incredibly high murder rate or attempted murder rate of African Americans in Milwaukee is not that high because African Americans are being murdered by police officers. So why are so many black people dying in inner cities? Why is the death toll so disproportionate?
Charles Mills (we’ll be reading a brief excerpt by him next Monday, 2/16) suggests that the ‘racial contract’ (which he argues precedes and enables the social contract amongst white people) norms and races bodies and places. The result is that phrases like ‘urban jungle’ or ‘black part of town’ basically signal wild spaces where ‘civilization’ and ‘order’ are absent. As a result, white society aims not to eradicate the violence that occurs in those spaces, but simply to contain it: to ensure that it remains in black spaces and does not come into white spaces. I think his insight helps us make sense of the horror that Chief Edwards displays.
Why are we now seeing a focus on police shootings of African Americans rather than a focus on the generally high homicide rate of African Americans? What does that tell us about law and about race in the United States? I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Please sound out in the comments!
* There is a difference between excessive use of force and brutality. Skolnick and Fyfe’s Above the Law suggests that officers who use excessive force often do so in public, believe they are doing the right thing, and usually use excessive force due to a lack of training. There is an escalating scale of force (from nice words to commanding words to violence to deadly force), and often excessive force results from jumping too high on the scale too quickly. The solution to minimizing excessive force is to ensure officers receive adequate training and have strong ties to the communities they serve.
Police brutality, on the other hand, often happens out of the public’s view, is calculated to intimidate or silence, and usually requires collusion and cooperation by other officers who are not involved. Officers who engage in brutality frequently believe that they are above the law – that regardless of what the law says, they are what prevents society from falling into chaos by ‘keeping the streets clean.’
This is not to say that excessive force is always excusable. It is just to note that in cases like this one (or perhaps even in the case of Michael Brown’s death), that the shootings happened in public suggests that these were excessive force problems rather than police brutality problems, according to Skolnick and Fyfe’s categorization.