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City, Officer Could Face Federal Charges in Dontre Hamilton Death

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Supporters of Dontre Hamilton congregate in Red Arrow Park in December. Hamilton's family could sue the city in federal court.

There are still loose ends in the case of a white Milwaukee police officer fatally shooting an unarmed black man.

This week, the city’s Fire and Police Commission upheld former officer Christopher Manney’s dismissal. Members agreed with the chief that Manney violated department policy in his encounter last April with Dontre Hamilton and deserved to lose his job because of the harm caused.

Manney won’t face state charges, although federal charges remain a possibility.

Civil rights advocates also hope the case forces the police to improve policies and training.

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, has been watching the Dontre Hamilton case from the beginning. He says now that the Fire and Police Commission has ruled in Manney’s case, the city should focus on solving systemic problems at the Milwaukee Police Department.

“I think a large aspect of bringing the community together is going to be a real self-evaluation at the department and the commission level of the practices and policies that may have contributed to the instances of misconduct and biased policing over the last few years,” Ahmuty says.

Ahmuty cites examples of what he calls biased policing, including officers conducting illegal body cavity searches of mainly black men.

He also mentions the 2011 incident involving Derek Williams, a 22-year-old black man who died in the back of a Milwaukee Police squad car after repeatedly telling officers he couldn’t breathe.

Ahmuty says the commission has an opportunity to set new priorities as it searches for a new executive director and reviews Police Chief Ed Flynn’s job performance later this year.

The ACLU director gives the commission credit for moving in the right direction, by taking seriously a report a UWM professor compiled about Milwaukee officers’ use of force.

“Much like the Homicide Review Commission in Milwaukee looks in detail at all the homicides that are committed in the city… the Fire and Police Commission can’t look at all the instances of use of force, because there’s about 800 of them in 2013, but it could audit compliance with the use of force policy and see if policy and practice needs to be improved,” Ahmuty says.

Federal eyes are also watching the MPD.

After District Attorney John Chisholm announced he would not charge former officer Manney with a crime, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Milwaukee said it would review the case for possible federal civil rights violations.

But the ACLU’s Chris Ahmuty says the government would need evidence showing Manney intentionally killed Dontre Hamilton because he was black.

“And that’s very hard to prove. It’s actually a higher standard than District Attorney Chisholm had to meet when he was assessing whether or not to bring first- or second-degree homicide charges,” Ahmuty says.

The family of Dontre Hamilton might also file a federal civil rights lawsuit, seeking monetary damages. The Hamiltons’ attorney, Jonathan Safran, says a lawsuit would allege the city, through an officer’s actions, violated Hamilton’s constitutional rights.

“It would be the illegal search that Christopher Manney did that may very well be a Fourth Amendment violation and other constitution violations…stopping him with no apparent reason and then his determination that he needed to then confront him, which then led to altercation,” Safran says.

Manney claimed he feared for his life before firing 14 shots at Hamilton. The former officer has the option of appealing his termination. He could argue in Milwaukee County Circuit Court that he was denied due process.

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