In April, Mikwaukee Officer Christopher Manney came up behind Dontre Hamilton in response to a call that he was sleeping in the park. Observing apparent symptoms of mental illness, Manney placed his arms around Hamilton from behind, in a pat-down that triggered a confrontation between the two men. Punches were thrown, Manney began beating Hamilton with a baton, and when Hamilton took the baton from Manney and allegedly began using it against Manney, Manney fired his gun, killing Hamilton.
No announcement has been made yet on whether criminal charges will be filed against Manney. But this week, police officials announced he would be fired. Chief Edward Flynn said Manney violated police protocol for treatment of the mentally disturbed when he patted Hamilton down from behind.
“This intentional action, in violation of training and policy, instigated a physical confrontation that resulted in a deadly use of force,” Flynn said. He also noted that Manney decided Hamilton was dangerous and treated him as such from the beginning of the interaction “based solely on observations of apparent mental illness, absent any overt actions on the part of Mr. Hamilton.” Manney didn’t know it, but two other officers had actually responded earlier to the call about Hamilton sleeping in the park and concluded, without incident, that he wasn’t doing anything wrong. Hamilton had a history of paranoid schnizophrenia.
In cases of deadly force by a police officer, it is often the case that the officer’s decision to fire their gun can withstand criminal charges, but that the officer took arguably unnecessary or improper actions that escalated the interaction and led to a death. It is not often the case, however, that those actions result in the officer’s firing.
One reason why things may have turned out differently this time in Milwaukee is because of a new law. In the past, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel explains, the police department almost always waited for the District Attorney’s decision about whether to file criminal charges, and relied upon that investigation in deciding whether to fire the officer. Because the standards for use of deadly force are very high, and charges by the very DAs that work daily with those officers are rare, police officials citing those legal findings would rarely impose discipline on those officers. A February Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel investigation found that officers escaped accountability entirely in several alarming police custody deaths.
But the new law requires an outside agency to lead the criminal review of police officers. Police departments, meanwhile, retain the authority to discipline their own officers, and Chief Flynn said the decision to fire Manney was “my decision alone.”
“We’re not talking that every cop that makes a mistake has to face grand juries and go to jail, but there has to be a consequence,” he said. Many community members are unsatisfied with anything less than criminal charges against Manney, and the District Attorney is still weighing whether to file criminal charges after receiving the report from the outside agency.
Days before he was fired, Manney applied for disability retirement, a program which would earn Manney close what he was earning while employed because the income is tax-free. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that at least five other officers were granted disability retirement pay since 2006 during or after an investigation for misconduct.
What’s more, Manney can still appeal his police firing to the Fire and Police commission, an action that tends to yield favorable results for officers around the country, according to a Human Rights Watch analysis of police accountability. Police leaders expressed defeat to HRW at the prospect of disciplining their officers in the face of civil service protections that virtually ensure they get to keep their jobs in some places. One analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer in the mid-1990s found that punishment imposed on officers by the police department was reversed or reduced nearly two-thirds of the time after going to arbitration.
A recent DesMoines case illustrates this phenomenon. Federal courts found that Mersed Dautovic brutally beat a couple he pulled over driving home from the movies. Witnesses observed Dautovic pummeling one victim with a baton in a wood-chopping motion as he lay face down on the ground in the road, cars swerving to avoid him. For this, Dautovic was eventually convicted of excessive force, after it was determined that he had perjured himself in court to claim that the couple he beat assaulted him and a fellow officer. But had he not been sent to prison, he might still have had his job. Dautovic was initially fired for the beating, but in December 2010, the decision to fire him was overturned by the Civil Service Commission — and with the strong backing of local police union leaders. The commission chairman said he believed Dautovic’s story that victim Octavius Bonds was the aggressor.