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Panel upholds firing of Milwaukee officer who killed unarmed man

UPDATED: The former Milwaukee police officer fired after killing an unarmed man last April will not get his job back. That’s the ruling from a panel of three Milwaukee fire and police commissioners who heard an appeal from ex-officer Christopher Manney.

According to the official record, Manney attempted to frisk 31-year-old Dontre Hamilton moments before the two began fighting in Red Arrow Park in downtown Milwaukee on April 30, 2014. Manney used his wooden baton against Hamilton, who allegedly grabbed the baton and fought back against Manney. Manney, who is white, then repeatedly fired at Hamilton, who was black and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The officer emptied his ammunition clip.

Manney was fired last October by Police Chief Ed Flynn, who said the officer improperly initiated a pat-down of Hamilton. 

Manney, during the hearing on his appeal, told commissioners that he still wants to “be a cop” and that his life has been about helping people.

The Milwaukee Police Department defended Manney’s dismissal, maintaining that he couldn’t offer a reason for initiating the pat-down other than a general belief that the mentally ill or homeless often carry knives. During his arguments, attorney Mark L. Thomsen, representing the department, said no one suspected Hamilton of committing a crime and there was no basis for the pat-down. Officers, Thomsen said, are only allowed to frisk a person if they reasonably suspect the individual possesses a weapon.

Manney’s attorney Jonathan Cermele argued he had reason to suspect Hamilton was armed. “He knew homeless people have a shard of glass, a knife, et cetera,” Cermele said during the hearing, which lasted several days and was attended by Hamilton’s relatives, who have said the slain man had no record of violence and was not homeless.

The panel reviewed evidence and heard testimony, including from the police chief, who said Manney’s “bad decision-making created a chain of events which would ultimately place him in a situation of using deadly force.” The panel then determined that Manney departed from department protocol and his punishment was proper.

The decision prompted a statement from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett: “What was most important then, and still is today, is to find a way for our city to heal and move forward. The tragic death of Dontre Hamilton has shaken our community and we have much work to do.”

In late 2014, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm announced an investigation into the shooting ended with a decision not to prosecute Manney. Chisholm said, based on the review by the state Division of Criminal Investigation, the shooting was justified.

Soon after the announcement, the U.S. Justice Department announced an investigation to determine whether Hamilton’s civil rights were violated.

The medical examiner’s report showed that one of the 14 bullets Manney fired hit Hamilton in the back; half the shots were fired downward and no gun-powder residue was found near Hamilton’s wounds.

Manney approached Hamilton after two other Milwaukee police officers, summoned by Starbucks employees, had checked on Hamilton on two occasions and said he was doing nothing wrong.

The state now is also investigating an officer-involved fatal shooting in Madison. As WiG went to press, the Wisconsin Department of Justice was expected on March 27 to deliver to Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne a report on the killing of 19-year-old Tony Robinson by Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny. Robinson was biracial. Kenny is white.

The findings will not be released until Ozanne makes a decision on whether to charge Kenny, who shot Robinson in an apartment house on March 6. According to police reports, Kenny was responding to calls that Robinson had attacked two people and was running in traffic.

Multiple protests followed the killing of Tony Robinson and also the killing of Dontre Hamilton, whose death was more than three months before a white police officer killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Missouri, and more than two months before the police-killing of another black man, Eric Garner, in New York City.

The AP contributed to this report.

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