MILWAUKEE » Milwaukee’s police chief was justified in firing a white officer who killed a black man during a scuffle last year, a panel of police commissioners ruled Monday night.
The three-commissioner panel earlier Monday had found that former officer Christopher Manney violated department protocol when he tried to search the man moments before they began fighting. Some in the room cheered when the ruling on Manney’s firing was announced.
Manney shot and killed 31-year-old Dontre Hamilton last April after a confrontation that began with Manney making a welfare check on Hamilton, who had been sleeping in a downtown park. According to Manney, Hamilton grabbed the officer’s baton and attacked him with it.
Prosecutors ruled the shooting was justified, but Chief Ed Flynn fired Manney, saying he improperly initiated a pat-down. Department investigators contend Manney couldn’t explain why he felt the need to pat Hamilton down beyond a general belief that homeless and mentally ill people often carry knives. Hamilton had paranoid schizophrenia, but his family has said he wasn’t dangerous.
"No one suspected him of committing a crime," Mark Thomsen, an attorney representing the department, said in closing arguments Monday. "There wasn’t a basis for (the pat-down)," Thomsen said.
Thomsen had argued that officers can frisk someone only if they reasonably suspect the person is armed and poses a threat. He maintained that Manney never clearly explained how he felt threatened.
Manney’s attorney had argued that "the good of the service" did not require that the officer be fired.
"I want to be a cop. It’s who I am. I’ve helped people my whole life," Manney told the panel.
Prosecutors’ decision in December not to charge Manney with a crime touched off days of peaceful rallies that saw protesters compare Hamilton’s death to Michael Brown’s fatal shooting at the hands of a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Dontre Hamilton’s brother, Nate Hamilton, told reporters after the panel’s first ruling that the family was happy with the decision.
"There’s still more to come," he added. "I’m just not going to be satisfied until all officers respect us, respect people, respect our constitutional rights."
Manney, who filed an application for disability retirement two days before he was fired, had testified on Sunday that he thought Hamilton might be under the influence of drugs or alcohol and he believed he might have a weapon.
"Lots of homeless have knives," Manney’s attorney Jonathan Cermele said. While Manney wasn’t certain of what was in a bulge in Hamilton’s clothing, Cermele said, "he knew homeless people have a shard of glass, a knife, et cetera."
Flynn testified on Saturday that Manney’s "bad decision-making" created a chain of events that put him in a position where he had to use deadly force.
A former Milwaukee detective said at the hearing Monday that Manney did the right thing by trying to frisk Hamilton. Steven Spingola, who now works with TNT’s "Cold Justice" program, said Manney would have been reckless otherwise.
Spingola acknowledged that Manney told investigators that the first time he felt fear was after Hamilton had lunged at him and punched him.
Robert Willis, a master police tactics instructor, testified that he felt Manney’s approach was valid because he legally stopped Hamilton and felt concerned for his safety. Willis said under cross-examination that Manney’s legal team is paying him $175 an hour for his work in the case and he planned to bill them for 20 to 25 hours of work.