Filmmaker Erik Ljung and freelance writer Corrinne Hess both spent months covering the Dontre Hamilton case. The two recently sat down to discuss what they learned and what's to come.
Milwaukee filmmaker Erik Ljung spent eight months with Dontre Hamilton’s family, producing a 10-minute documentary for The New York Times (embedded below) about Wisconsin’s new law mandating an independent, outside investigation of police shootings.
The Hamiltons were the first family to see how the law played out after Dontre was fatally shot April 30, 2014 by former Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney in Red Arrow Park. During that same time period, freelance writer Corrinne Hess was interviewing the Hamilton family and others involved in the case for a feature story in the March issue of Milwaukee Magazine (“A City’s Tragedy”). Ljung and Hess didn’t meet until their pieces were released.
Corrinne Hess: Both of us started working on this story in August, 2014, meeting primarily with the family, and then with Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and others involved. During my interaction with the Hamilton family and through observing them at events, they – particularly Nate (Dontre’s brother) – became hardened. Their message became more about race than mental health — although the mental health issue was always on Maria (Dontre’s mother)’s mind. As time went on and they continued to wait for answers, their initial anger at one police officer seemed to grow to anger at the institution. Do you agree?
Erik Ljung: From first working on the piece about Corey Stingley and then working and talking with Michael Bell (Note: Michael Bell Sr.’s 21-year-old son was shot and killed by a Kenosha Police Officer in 2004. In 2014, Bell Sr. successfully lobbied for a new state law mandating outside review of all officer-involved deaths. It is the first law of its kind in the country. The shooting death of Dontre Hamilton was the first case to be tried under the new Michael Bell law), and then the Dontre Hamilton case, and the Tony Robinson case a little bit, it’s interesting to see people just working and going about their daily lives having to become a spokesperson on TV overnight. You are dealing with the worst thing that has happened in your life and all of a sudden, there are lights and cameras in your face. Sometimes I go home and feel terrible about what I’m doing, but I’m hoping I’m bringing attention to an underreported case.
Once I got involved, the conversation did change from mental health to race. It seemed that mental health concerns were always at the forefront for the families, but it was impossible to ignore the racial undertones as the summer wore on and the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice became headlines. It’s impossible to say exactly what role race played in this, but to say it had no role at all would be disingenuous. It was interesting to watch Nate’s progression from being in shock at the loss of a brother to growing comfortable as a community activist. He’s now making comments on everything to the streetcar to economic debates in the city. He has gotten a lot of flak for that, but he is from a different part of the community and he has a voice. He is a smart guy, he is a hard worker, he has three kids, he goes to school full time, he works full time, and he’s doing this. I don’t know how he does it.
CH: The transformation has been fascinating to watch. And you are right, this family and every family who has had a loss like this is put into this position of being in the spotlight and having to decide how to handle it. It’s a responsibility that no one wants.
EL: Michael Bell made a great point: you don’t ask to be put in this position, and when you are, the media game has already started. The police department is putting out any dirt they can find on your loved one, even if it isn’t related to this incident. You are trying to make funeral arrangements, and all of this is going on around you. The same thing happened to the Hamiltons the day after the shooting.
CH: Nate said the family initially decided to not speak to the media, but after the initial press conference from Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, they had to in order to clear Dontre’s name.
EL: That’s another thing – people have said disgusting things about the family not being there for Dontre when he was alive. In my own family, we have people with schizophrenia, and I grew up in a pretty middle-class family. Even when people have money, it’s difficult to take care of someone with this illness. You can’t fix schizophrenia by throwing money at it. Someone can be very normal and then things can change. It’s not because the families don’t care, it’s because they don’t know what to do.
CH: Also, Dontre was an adult. You have a mother who was working two or more jobs at all times, brothers who were working jobs, going to school, having their own lives and taking care of their children, and they did what they could for their adult brother.
EL: That is a great point. I talked to one of his caseworkers and they said Dontre was very self-aware. He was able to work with people around him to calm himself down. The caseworker said Dontre was a teddy bear — a very quiet and gentle human being. He was shocked Dontre’s name was associated with this story. The family has told me that once he began treatment, you couldn’t even notice the illness anymore, unless he had a spell.
CH: You said you wanted to take on this project because this case wasn’t getting any media attention. I believe that without the Hamilton family’s peaceful persistence, this case wouldn’t have been kept alive for a year. I mean, they never stopped. I give them credit for keeping Dontre’s name in the conversation.
EL: This could have easily fallen away. It got to the point where, for weeks, there were 15 to 20 people out there. Why was a patrol beat cop working Downtown not CIT trained to begin with? But, to the police department’s credit, they are making reforms.
The Michael Bell law is a huge reason this case is different from others across the country. I was shocked to learn this is the first law of its kind in the country. Since the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and watching this case play out, we have seen some obvious flaws and loopholes, and I know Michael Bell is still pushing for changes. Police officers have a dangerous job. However, when they take a life, they should be scrutinized by an outside agency with as much independence as possible. It only makes sense, and may help restore faith in the department if officers are held accountable when they make mistakes, or worse. Working with Michael Bell, Corey Stingley…these kids die and there is not even a trial. That is the biggest slap in the face. If my loved one died and there was no trial, I don’t know how I would handle it. The Hamilton family’s resilience has been amazing.
CH: What was the reaction like from the community and those involved when your documentary was on the front page of the New York Times?
EL: To be the main story on the front page of the New York Times was a shock. It was nice to see it get that attention. I think the piece was fair to every side involved. It was not a slam piece by any means. But I think it was critical of the Michael Bell law. The law is a huge step in the right direction, but there are some kinks, and Michael Bell is all over it. He’s an amazing force for change. He called me after the piece came out, and he was very happy with it and that was a huge relief for me. You hope the Hamilton family feels the same way, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what’s right and tell both sides of the story, no matter how you feel personally. I hope it was fair, but critical as well.
CH: That is what I set out to do too — be fair to both sides and tell a complete story. I haven’t heard from either side, and when I saw the Hamiltons and the Milwaukee police union at Manney’s hearing, neither were happy to see me. So, I suppose I did my job.
EL: I received a mixed response from the Hamilton family regarding my piece, which is concerning because I hope they didn’t feel like I violated their trust. You force your way into the worst period of a person’s life. You have to tell both sides accurately. The goal is to be objective, but there is something that drew you in in the first place.
CH: Was there anything that surprised you during your months of shooting?
EL: I was born and raised in California and one thing about coming here I noticed immediately was there is definitely a different vibe. The racial segregation was almost palpable. There is a tension I hadn’t felt growing up in northern California. Being involved in this was really interesting. I met a lot of people who don’t look like me or dress like me and we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. The protests broke down the walls of segregation. I was filming with the (Hamilton) family at All People’s Church during a Thanksgiving celebration and it wasn’t one of these events where the intention and goal was to bring a diverse crowd together, it was an event that just was genuinely and organically very diverse. I hadn’t felt anything like it living in Milwaukee.
CH: I can see what you are talking about – but from a different point of view. I grew up here and I hadn’t really realized the segregation until I moved to North Carolina after college. The first thing I noticed was how desegregated the restaurants were. It sounds weird, but until I moved away, I hadn’t eaten in restaurants that were predominately filled with black customers. I moved back here about 10 years ago and really noticed the segregation.
EL: Even more distinctly than race are the economic barriers. There are still class lines that are pretty distinct.
CH: I don’t have any doubt the family will sue the City of Milwaukee. I also think Nate is going to continue being an advocate. I could see him dedicating his life to this cause.
EL: I agree; I don’t see Nate giving up on this any time soon. Maria is taking this to a national level as well. Nate is developing relationships with politicians in Milwaukee — who knows what is in store? He has grown a lot in the last year. He is still a young guy. He is still finding his voice.
As far as the case goes – we’re probably talking about another decade. Michael Bell still hasn’t gotten a final ruling in his federal case, so for the Hamiltons, this is probably just beginning. Unfortunately.
This dialogue has been edited from a longer exchange.