"We've waited almost a year:" Hamilton family anxious as Manney appeal hearing gets underway

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission has begun hearing the case to decide whether Christopher Manney should get his job back. Manney is the former Milwaukee police officer who shot and killed Dontre Hamilton in Red Arrow Park in downtown Milwaukee last April.

On April 30th, 2014, Hamilton was sleeping in Red Arrow Park. Then-Officer Christopher Manney was performing a welfare check, and police say Hamilton grabbed Manney’s baton and struck him with it. That’s when Christopher Manney opened fire, shooting Hamilton 14 times. Manney was terminated from the Milwaukee Police Department for his handling of Hamilton that day.

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn fired Manney in October 2014, saying Manney treated Hamilton like a criminal when he decided to pat him down. It was that pat down that cost Manney his job.

“There`s a set of training and enforcements that you are taught and you don`t go hands on and start frisking somebody only because they appear to be mentally ill. Christopher Manney treated Hamilton as though he were a dangerous criminal instead of following his training,” Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said in announcing Manney’s firing from MPD.

On December 22nd, 2014, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office announced Manney’s “use of force” in the shooting death of 31-year-old Dontre Hamilton was “justified self-defense and that defense cannot be reasonably overcome to establish a basis to charge Officer Manney with a crime.”

Manney is appealing his termination from MPD, which brings us to Thursday’s hearing.

The hearing began at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Milwaukee’s Municipal Court building on North James Lovell Street. There is a lot of interest in the hearing — and limited seating inside the hearing room.

Family members and supporters of Dontre Hamilton have been demonstrating since the shooting. They hoped Christopher Manney would be criminally charged, and now, they hope the FPC will uphold Manney’s termination.

“I’m going to stand by my decision and will testify to that extent. I made a difficult decision that I believe was based entirely on the facts and our values. Officers must have courage, but they must have competence. Competence was the key issue here. A lack of it was why I terminated the officer. The subject of the hearing the next three days will be that issue, and I'll be expected to testify -- so what I have to say, I'll say at the hearing,” Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said.

Thursday was difficult for the Hamilton family, as it was the first time they saw Christopher Manney in person. This, following months of protests over the shooting.

"I don’t think he understands what he did to my family. We just want justice for our brother,” Dontre Hamilton’s brother Dameion Perkins said the night before the hearing was set to begin.

"This system doesn't deserve our concern. They deserve our concern, but not our emotion, so we're going in here more concerned than anything. To have emotion toward Christopher Manney is really irrelevant. No matter what we say to him or do to him, it's not going to change what he's done to Dontre. Christopher Manney to me has become a nobody. I'm not going to make him seem like he's somebody when he's not. I think that he needs to be held accountable, but I'm not going to put a lot of effort into thinking about him. I'm thinking about the next Christopher Manney as well, making sure that they don't exist no more, so that we don't have to be talking about these type of issues. We feel this system has been very not competent. We feel they have structural damage. We've waited almost a year now to even get to this point. So much as been said. So much as been done. Regardless of what happens today, we're still going to find out that the system is still unclear. They've heard for several months nothing but the truth. We're hoping they do their community work and work for the community and not for the system. We're going to continue to press. We're going to continue to deny him his job in any way that we possibly can that's peaceful and humane," Hamilton's brother Nate Hamilton said Thursday as the hearing was set to begin.

Manney appeal hearing overflow room

A lot of logistics were worked out in advance of the appeal hearing. On the first floor, there is a lobby where people can watch the proceedings on closed circuit television.

Retired Judge Michael Skwierawski is overseeing proceedings.

"I spent 25 years of my career in public service. To me, this is another way to be involved in public service -- to simply oversee the presentation of evidence, the calling of witnesses, the subpoenas, documents and exhibits," Skwierawski said.

A panel of three Fire and Police Commissioners, who will ultimately make the decision, sit below the judge. Facing the Fire and Police Commission, on one side of the courtroom, is Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and his lawyer. They're arguing to keep Manney’s termination in place. On the other side, Manney and his attorney are fighting to overturn the firing. In the gallery, the first row on each side was reserved for the family of Dontre Hamilton and those supporting Christopher Manney.

Manney appeal hearing

The hearing is much like a trial, with both sides presenting their cases, cross examining and calling witnesses.

"Lots of police officers, people who are trainers, people who were involved in the investigation, some outside experts who have evaluated the situation," Skwierawski said.

On Thursday evening, Chief Flynn's attorney argued Manney violated policy and shouldn't get his job back.

"As the chief stated and will state, you don`t go hands on and start frisking somebody only because they appear to be mentally ill," Mark Thomsen said.

Manney's attorney argued the pat down was justified, and Chief Flynn's decision to terminate Manney wasn't the right one.

"He was wrong in concluding Manney's actions were intentional.  He was wrong in concluding Manney's actions violated training and policy," Jonathan Cermele said.

The Fire and Police Commission issued a list of rules for the hearing. No signs are allowed in the courtroom — and only 59 people are allowed there. Skwierawski says part of his job is to keep things under control.

"I'm actually in the best position to watch for it," Skwierawski said.

Jonathan Safran says phase one of the hearing is focusing on whether Manney violated police policy with his search of Hamilton. If the panel says “yes,” the hearing will go to the next phase. Phase two will determine whether Manney’s punishment (his termination from MPD) was appropriate.

The shooting itself is not expected to be addressed in the hearings. Unless there is a change, the Hamilton family (and the public) will have no opportunity to speak.

Despite the fact that the public would not be allowed to speak, the hearing drew a crowd, and Milwaukee police added extra security. About 30 people lined up early to get inside the building. Barriers were set up outside the Municipal Court building. Everyone who entered had to go through a metal detector.

It’s not clear how long the hearing will last. Courtroom time has been set aside for the hearing on Thursday and Friday evening as well as Saturday during the day.