Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Stereotypes Can Kill

March 24, 2015

Yesterday, the Milwaukee Fire & Police Commission upheld the firing of former MPD officer Christopher Manney after he shot and killed Dontre Hamilton last April 30.  I spent four hours one day observing the hearing.  What was very clear and disturbing was that the decision whether to sustain or overturn MPD Chief Flynn’s firing of Manney was made on technical grounds of whether Manney followed MPD rules and training.  The entire hearing turned our attention away from the most obvious and important aspect of this killing: one more young black man killed by police.

Manney was fired on two grounds. First, he was accused of stereotyping homeless people and acting based on a general conception that homeless people had weapons, knives and such.  In the first count of the charges, Manney’s statements to police investigators had not included any evidence that these stereotypes applied to Dontre. His pat down of Dontre thus violated policy and MPD rules. Based on Manney’s own words, there was no reason to pat Dontre down, and doing so led to a confrontation that took Dontre’s life. 

In social science terms, Manney was fired for being guilty of the ecological fallacy,  mechanically applying characteristics of a group to a specific case.  “Homeless people often carry weapons; therefore Dontre carried a weapon.”  Manney was found guilty of using stereotypes.  And stereotypes, we discover once again, can kill. And Dontre wasn’t even homeless. 

The second count was based on Manney’s response to count one. Once Manney realized he had not made a case to police investigators for Dontre’s dangerousness, he changed his tune.  He said he actually had feared for his life because of Dontre’s aggressive reactions, including a kicking motion and a “thousand yard stare.” If this was true, the charges read, then Manney again violated rules and policy by not asking for backup. 

The Chief repeatedly has said that Manney’s shooting of Dontre Hamilton was not a criminal act. The shooting was deemed justified by an officer being in fear for his life. The firing was not framed as a homicide, but as a technical rule violation, one that had the “unfortunate” consequence of taking a human life, i.e. Manney shooting Dontre 14 times. In our celebration of Manney’s firing we can’t lose sight of the fact that Manney is a free man and Dontre lies dead.

Flynn himself has radically changed how he framed the shooting. The police union attorney, in his cross examination of Flynn, played a video of the press conference Chief Flynn had given the day after the killing. At that time Flynn decried deinstitutionalization of the homeless and mentally ill which made controlling them a police matter. He complained how dangerous the mentally ill are and how forcing police to deal with violent homeless men is bound to result in situations like the death of Dontre Hamilton. The police are overwhelmed, Flynn said in his best liberal manner, and until broader social policies are adopted, killings of people like Dontre Hamilton are inevitable.  The day after the shooting Flynn’s chosen frame was to defend his officers against crazed, dangerous, mentally ill homeless people— like Dontre. 

Oh yes, and Dontre was black. You wouldn’t know it from the hearing, from the union or city attorney or Chief Flynn.  All mention of race was missing from testimony even though racist police violence oppressively and persistently hangs over this and many other cities. To frame means your attention is focused on what is inside the frame and you are directed away from considering what is outside. I listened as the legalistic words of both sets of lawyers and the judge expunged race from the proceedings.  

The frame of this hearing was only whether Manney abided by MPD policy or not.  A policy, I might note that has been relied on by police and city officials to justify dozens of police killings of Milwaukee black men over the years. They didn’t need to shout “THIS IS NOT ABOUT RACE!”   They just ran the hearing as if race didn’t matter.  Race was outside the frame. Once our attention is focused on what is inside a frame, i.e. the police rules, we don’t need to recognize the shadow of a tombstone in the room, one more unarmed black man killed by police. Everyone seems to agree: “They” are dangerous and “they” are the homeless but we all know who else “they” are. The power of framing lies in what is said but also what is unsaid. 

Flynn’s day after “police-are-facing-violent-homeless-people” framing was very different from his technical defense of his firing decision many months later.  Why the change? In the months that followed Flynn’s initial defense of Manney, the country’s streets erupted in protest over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Do you think the thousands marching in Ferguson and New York had any influence as Milwaukee wondered whether they also will face protests, rioting, and violence?  Do Flynn and Milwaukee's Mayor Barrett watch the news? Without the protests filling our TV screens and the Hamilton family’s brave stand,  Dontre’s death would likely have been dealt with routinely and Manney would have been returned to duty. 

I think the Chief’s firing of Manney and the Fire & Police Commission action was a concession to our movement.  But we also need understand it as a conscious attempt to divert attention away from racist killings by Milwaukee Police.  #BlackLIvesMatter remains our powerful counter frame.