Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Riots, Race, Stereotypes and the Law

Unrest in Milwaukee's Sherman Park
 after Police shooting of Sylville Smith
Are charges brought against police officers based only on the facts of a case and a strict reading of the law?  Or are prosecutors' decisions sensitive to unrest in the streets and other non-judicial factors? Consider two cases in Milwaukee.

Dontre Hamilton was shot by Milwaukee Police officer Christopher Manney April 30, 2014. Manney was fired five months later but Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm announced in December there would be no criminal charges against the officer. 

On December 15. 2016  Chisholm charged MPD officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown with reckless homicide for the shooting August 13 of Sylville Smith. In justifying his decision, he said:  “I have an ethical obligation to just look at those facts and ... not to consider extraneous things like public sentiment.”  

Really.  I think the contrary was more likely true.  These DA’s decisions were clearly responsive to public sentiment,  ie. fear or lack of fear of riots, rebellions, and unrest.   Additionally, the way police officers Manney and Heaggan-Brown have been "framed" in the public mind is related as much to racial stereotypes as any “facts.” 

First the “facts.”  Dontre Hamilton was sleeping lawfully in Red Arrow Park April 30, 2014 when he was confronted by officer Christopher Manney.  Dontre’s resistance to being poked by a baton, according to Chisholm, was legal justification for Manney to use lethal force.  The officer fired 14 shots at an unarmed Hamilton. There was no video.

MPD Chief  Edward Flynn fired Manney in October of 2014, more than five months after the shooting.  Flynn said Manney had not followed police procedures but also that he had not broken the law in shooting Hamilton.  The firing occurred only after local protests and more importantly major riots and demonstrations in Ferguson and other cities over other police killings. In December of 2014, after mass arrests on Milwaukee’s downtown freeway (full disclosure: I was among those arrested) DA Chisholm declined to indict Manney.  The arrests did prompt eight Milwaukee Aldermen to successfully demand police begin to wear body cameras. 

In the more recent Smith killing,  Mayor Tom Barrett said a body cam video — though incredibly he admitted he has never viewed it —  fully explained the indictment.  According to DA Chisholm, Heaggan-Brown fired one shot when Smith was holding a gun, which Chisholm said was justified.  A second shot, fired less than two seconds later after Smith had thrown his gun over a fence, was the stated reason for the homicide indictment.  The officer claimed he thought Smith was going for a second gun.  Similar to Manney he was not fired for the actual shooting.
Manney at his termination appeal

Heaggan-Brown’s defense, that he fired two shots within two seconds at an armed man,  seems to me stronger than Manney’s firing 14 shots at an unarmed man. Still Heaggan-Brown is headed for prison while Manney enjoys a full pension. Why was Manney not charged at all but Heaggan-Brown faces 60 years in prison? More than the law is at work here.

One difference between the cases is that protests were slow to break out after Hamilton’s April 30 killing. They gained steam after rioting broke out in Ferguson more than three months later in August of 2014 and as the country swirled with Black Lives Matter protests.  The Coalition for Justice in Milwaukee began small but persistent protests.  However the size and orderliness of the demonstrations likely led city officials to conclude there was not much of a chance of widespread unrest.  Manney was supported by the police union and enjoyed sympathetic treatment in the media.

The response to Smith’s killing was more immediate and violent.  Riots shook Sherman Park where the shooting took place. Businesses were burned, the National Guard was on stand-by.  Local officials were traumatized. Just firing Heaggan-Brown, local leaders must have been thinking,  might not be enough to pacify an angry and wary public.
Heaggan-Brown pleading "not guilty"

The two officers also presented contrasting portraits.  Heaggan-Brown was charged with a sexual assault soon after the shooting and newspapers discovered he had been an aspiring rapper.   In stark contrast to the mild mannered Manney, Heaggan-Brown looked more like “them” and pictures of him framed a narrative of Heaggan-Brown as a “bad apple.”  View the standard media images the public saw of the two presented here and above.  

I’ve learned one way to combat stereotypes is to “sub-type.” In other words the stereotype of someone like a gang member as evil —  or a police officer as good — is so strong, that it’s not likely to be overcome easily.  So one avenue is to argue that the stereotype may be true but “not for this case.”   The white, well-mannered Manney fit the police stereotype of “officer friendly” but  the black rogue male Heaggan-Brown did not.  In other words, the DA could successfully “sub-type” Heaggan-Brown as deviant while conveniently declining to demonize Manney.

Courts respond to the Streets
The point is not that Heaggan-Brown is a victim and should get to live on a pension like Manney.  To me, they both deserve prison if convicted at trial.  But our US culture is so racialized that it extends even to the police.  African American police officers have often found that black is more salient than blue, and have been victimized by white police officers

We also should not believe the fairy tale that a wonderful liberal Milwaukee DA strictly followed the law and was not influenced by "extraneous public sentiment."  No, in both cases city fathers feared unrest and the DA's response fit with a varying estimate of the probability of riots.  While legalities matter, DAs and judges  often frame decisions in response to broader events.  Does anyone believe that the indictment of officer Jason Van Dyke in Chicago was not related to the fear of an angry black response to the video of the killing of Laquan McDonald?  Police killings have been routinely covered up in Chicago and elsewhere until the Ferguson uprising and Black Lives Matter youth took to the streets.   

We need to be honest that in Milwaukee violence successfully produced an indictment in one case and peaceful protest failed in the other.  I do not advocate violence, but our non-violent protests need to be more tactically sound and combine small group action with broad mass demonstrations and exploitation of divisions of elites.   Donald Trump’s election, some surveys have found, has more to do with racial resentment than desire for a strong leader.  Sadly, this means will have likely have many more occasions to organize around police violence. 

I also see these cases as a demonstration of the ubiquity of race in the criminal justice system. The DA’s decision to prosecute Heaggan-Brown relied, consciously or not,  on the usefulness of racial stereotypes —  to the extent that a police officer was sub-typed to the public as a black “thug.”   Heaggan-Brown is finding out that blue doesn't trump black. 

While we need to insist on vigorous prosecution of killer cops, our main tactics are in the streets, not the courts.