MILWAUKEE (AP) — Family members and supporters of a mentally ill black man fatally shot in a confrontation with a white police officer criticized a plan Thursday that allows federal officials to collaborate with the Milwaukee Police Department on reforms rather than launch a full-scale investigation.
The death of Dontre Hamilton, who was shot 14 times last year by an officer responding to a call of a man illegally sleeping in a park, has galvanized protests across the city.
Hamilton’s mother and brother joined community activists Thursday at a news conference, saying they were skeptical of any reform process that works with a department they see as fundamentally broken.
“When Dontre was murdered, there was no accountability,” Maria Hamilton said, tearfully recalling her son. “We’re tired. They need to do a pattern and practice investigation into our system. We are dying here.”
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The news conference by members of the Coalition for Justice on the steps of the federal courthouse came immediately after the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services laid out broad strokes of a reform plan for Milwaukee police. The federal officials said experts would work with police officers, community members and civil rights groups to try to make the department a national model.
The dueling statements highlighted sustained conflict between community members upset over the fatal shooting and federal and local officials who pledge reform.
COPS Director Ronald Davis said that over the next eight to 10 months an assessment team will perform an “extremely deep” review of the department that would likely focus on police use of force, community engagement, handling mass demonstrations and fixing statistical disparities in law enforcement.
The federal action, known as a collaborative reform process, carries less stigma than patterns and practices reviews also conducted by the U.S. Justice Department. Civil rights investigators conduct those reviews, which can lead to an overhaul in policies and protocols as well as court-enforceable agreements between the police force and the federal government.
Davis said the collaborative review process for Milwaukee was modeled on pattern and practice investigations that stem from federal litigation. He said the key differences are that his office’s findings are recommendations, while pattern and practice discoveries could be enforceable by court order. He repeatedly said the review is no less thorough.
He said there are 16,000 law enforcement agencies around the U.S., and “we can’t sue our way into police reform.”
Davis spoke at a media only event with Milwaukee’s mayor and police chief, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin and the newly appointed head of the federal Policing Practices and Accountability Initiative.
The privacy was an aspect the demonstrators outside criticized. They argued it should have been a public meeting.
Nate Hamilton, Dontre Hamilton’s brother, co-founder of the Coalition for Justice, said he sees a constant problem with the way the Milwaukee police operate.
He said his family and a lawyer were due to meet with federal officials after their gathering, and that he would keep an open mind that things could improve, but “when you say ‘collaborative,’ we can’t trust that. We need an investigation.”