Responding to Tragedy in Madison and Milwaukee

Comparing the responses to the fatal officer-involved shootings of Tony Robinson in Madison and Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee.

While protests have rocked the state capitol in recent years, until now, it has been songs of labor solidarity ringing in the air. The March 6 shooting death of Tony Robinson, an unarmed biracial teen shot by a white Madison police officer, has changed the playlist to one that has been heard in Milwaukee since the Dontre Hamilton shooting last year: “Black lives matter”; “Hands up don’t shoot”; “No justice no compromise.”

With peaceful protesters blocking Madison traffic and the sidewalks leading to the state capitol since the deadly shooting, there is no sign that the latest death at the hands of police will go away quietly.

Hamilton’s own family members – brother, Nate, and mother, Maria – have been front-and-center, keeping the message alive since the fatal shooting of Dontre in Red Arrow Park April 30 by former Milwaukee Police Officer Christopher Manney.

Hamilton family attorney, Jonathan Safran, said it is interesting how much national attention the Robinson case immediately received, compared to the Hamilton shooting almost one year ago.

“I think it’s the timing,” Safran said. “The country seems much more polarized and now we are seeing violence against police officers. It is terrible how things have gone, and I don’t know where it’s going to end, but something has to be done to change.”

Robinson, 19, died after what Madison police said was a confrontation in which he assaulted 45-year-old police veteran Matt Kenny. A preliminary autopsy showed Robinson was shot in his head, torso and right arm.

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval soon went to Robinson’s family, prayed with his grandmother, and identified Kenny as the shooter. He also told the media about Kenny’s previous police-involved shooting eight years ago that resulted in a death.

“People have tried to compare our response to Ferguson, and maybe this has a little to do with that, but we decided awhile back if it’s good news, get it out fast and if it’s bad news, get it out faster,” says Joel DeSpain, public information officer with the Madison Police Department. “It’s going to take a lot of work to build up trust again, especially in certain parts of our community. But when the chief has spoken, it is not talking points. It comes from his heart.”

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn handled the Hamilton shooting differently, holding a press conference the following day, which incensed the Hamilton family into protest. Manney’s name was also not revealed until five months after the shooting when Nate Hamilton said it during a September meeting of the Fire and Police Commission.

Flynn fired Manney in October for the officer’s failure to adhere to department search procedures when he approached Dontre and patted him down, resulting in an altercation that ultimately led to the shooting.

Manney’s appeal hearing to get his job back will begin at 4:30 p.m. March 19, and is scheduled to last three days. Safran says the hearing many not answer all of the questions many people – including the Hamiltons – want to hear, since it will focus on everything before Dontre Hamilton was patted down by Manney. If the Fire and Police Commission finds Flynn was justified in firing Manney and the hearing goes into a disciplinary phase, the actual shooting may be discussed, says Safran.

While the District Attorney has decided not to charge Manney criminally, Safran is in regular contact with federal investigators who are reviewing the case, and is also awaiting more information from the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Division of Criminal Investigation Department, to determine if a civil suit against the city of Milwaukee will be filed.

“Probably, given the information we have, we will proceed, but no final decision has been made,” says Safran. “Ultimately, it’s up to the family to decide.”

Meanwhile in Madison, the Division of Criminal Investigation is investigating the Robinson shooting.



Corrinne Hess is a former newspaper reporter living in Milwaukee.