Author’s note: This profile is part of an ongoing series of narratives, originally started in 2015, focused on people who have been killed by the police. It is an attempt to counteract media bias, which often vilifies these men and women, both young and old. These stories have been captured through the voices of the victims’ family members. I have been fortunate to meet the families and then connect them with each other throughout the years through my work in various organizations.
The other day, I was walking through Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago, a city whose county jail is its largest mental health facility, at about 10 pm. The night was chilly, but I stopped walking to watch two white police officers yelling at a presumably homeless, most likely mentally ill elderly Black woman sleeping on the pavement.
“You better get up or you’re going to jail,” one of the two officers yelled at her, as the other proceeded to kick her. The officers’ attention then turned to me to ask why I was standing there. I told them I was there to ensure that they did not hurt her. Black and Brown people dealing with mental health care issues have frequently been the targets of police violence.
Dontre Hamilton was one of those people. On April 30, 2014, police officer Christopher Manney killed him in Milwaukee.
“From the moment Dontre was born, I was honored to be a part of his life,” says his mother, Maria Hamilton. Dontre was born with asthma, so Maria paid extra attention to him throughout his childhood.
“I had to nurture him and become a nurse in some incidents. He had pneumonia a couple of times…. He had to have a treatment daily with the asthma,” Maria continues. Despite his health issues, Dontre had a normal childhood and was able to play sports, which he played through high school with his brothers. “The asthma didn’t consume him because he was normal like any child. I just watched him more and cared for him a lot,” Maria says.
Eventually, Dontre got over his asthma, and he continued to do all of the normal things that kids do. “He had a peaceful spirit about himself. He enjoyed being around the smallest children and playing game[s] … Dontre was a babysitter at the age of 9 years old,” Maria explains. Maria laughs, recalling times she asked to borrow money from her son because he was always saving his money, never buying superfluous things for himself.
Not only did Dontre work for money, but he also spent a lot of time helping the homeless community in Milwaukee. “I told him, ‘You can’t do that. You don’t know those people.’ But he said, ‘Mom, they need help,'” Maria says.
Maria explains that Dontre’s loving and selfless character shaped the choices she’s made in her life, too.
“I am so grateful and thankful to be a part of his life because I was learning and being prepared to do the work that I am doing right now,” Maria says, referring to the foundation she founded, Mothers for Justice United.
Dontre was doing well until about 2011, when he was 28 years old. It was then that his family began to see a change in him. “He was talking and no one was in the room. He was calling me and other family members to see if we were OK because he was having premonitions,” Maria says.
She began calling 911 when Dontre experienced an episode, not knowing that they would not or could not send someone to come out and evaluate him. They would only send the police. “At that time, I was not afraid of [Dontre]; I just knew that something was wrong,” Maria explains.
The situation changed a bit in 2013. “Silverware and knives and stuff were missing out of the kitchen. I would find them hidden in different parts of the house. I would wake up and windows were open. I really felt unsafe, so I called the police to come take him and have him evaluated,” Maria says. Instead, the police just detained him in jail. There was never an evaluation.
It was at that point that Maria began working with an organization that operated a group home. Dontre was able to move into the home. While he was staying there, he had an episode in February of 2013. “His neck was cut, and he was stabbed in his neck with scissors; we don’t know if it was self-inflicted or not,” Maria tells me.
At that point, Dontre was finally formally evaluated, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and put on state Medicaid. However, he was not allowed to come back and live in the group home. The organization gave no explanation to the family.
“[Doctors] put him on shots, and it was actually helping. He was assigned a social worker and a provider that helped him get to his business. He was doing OK,” Maria explains. Once he began treatment, Dontre stopped having episodes.
However, soon his access to treatment was cut off.
“He went in December to an outreach facility to get his medication, and they told him he wasn’t insured anymore. So until February 2014 he wasn’t on medication,” Maria says.
In response, she went to the facility that handles state insurance and asked what had happened to Dontre’s insurance; it turned out his insurance had been rejected due to a glitch. However, since it had been 90 days, the facility could not give him medication without a new evaluation. Dontre was not scheduled for his evaluation until May of that year.
“By this time, he was scared and leaving the apartment, and he would wander around a lot. There were times we couldn’t find him,” Maria sighs.
It only got worse from that point on. One night Dontre left the house at around 11:00 pm to go to his brother’s house. “He called me and told me someone was going to kill him. He walked about four miles to the hotel downtown. I was talking to him on the phone,” Maria says. She was able to calm him down, and he got to a room and slept for eight hours. He then called in the morning to make sure Maria was safe and to let her know he was still afraid that he would be killed if he left his hotel. So, he called his brother, who told him he would meet him at his home later that day. He wouldn’t see his brother that day.
“At about 2 pm that day, Dontre was murdered. He told his brother that he was at the park just chilling,” Maria tells me, crying.
Dontre was sitting in Red Arrow Park, located in downtown Milwaukee, in broad daylight, not bothering a soul. “Someone called the police and said there was a homeless guy too close to them. They went and told the manager at a nearby business, who then decided he wasn’t doing anything wrong. They called 911, who asked for Chris Manney, the beat cop in that area,” Maria says.
The dispatcher left a message for Manney later on, telling him not to go to the park, as it turned out that Dontre was doing nothing wrong. Manney went anyway.
“He snuck up on Dontre and started hitting him with the baton. He was trying to get him to leave the park. Dontre would’ve suffered some brain swelling had he been taken to the hospital for the excessive times he had been beaten with that baton,” Maria says, as she chokes back tears.
Dontre could not take the blows any longer, so he grabbed Officer Manney’s baton. In response, Chris Manney shot him 14 times. Fourteen times. He emptied his clip on the unarmed 31-year-old Dontre.
This happened in broad daylight. Dontre Hamilton was pronounced dead at 3:31 pm in a park that sits right across from city hall. There were 60 witnesses, and the mayor, along with other city officials working in buildings surrounding the park, heard the gunshots that took Dontre’s life.
“We live in a segregated city. Milwaukee is so divided,” Maria starts to say, but then begins to cry. She continues, “We have certain areas like that particular area, that Black people are not in, unless they work in that area. Everyone ran to their [office] window and actually saw Dontre lying there. My child laid there for four hours in that park,” Maria says softly as she chokes back tears.
“People don’t even realize that Black people live in Milwaukee,” Maria explains. “It’s horrible here, our education is the worst, we have the most Black incarceration, we have the worst education system in the world.”
Only 6.5 percent of Wisconsin’s population is Black, and the state’s most sizable Black population is in Milwaukee — 40 percent.
Approximately a week before Dontre’s murder, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had signed into law a policy that the police could not investigate a police officer in a murder investigation. The state’s justice department was supposed to lead the investigation, but instead, the Milwaukee police did.
Christopher Manney was fired, but there were no charges. Moreover, Dontre’s story was distorted in the media.
“[The police were interviewed] in the news the next morning,” Maria says. “They didn’t know he had a mental illness, and they assumed he was homeless. They said a homeless man was killed after having a scuffle with the police. They said he was a robber, a homeless man.”
Officer Manney had no marks on his person, only the nick on his thumb where he pulled the trigger. Dontre had 21 bullet holes in him, including in his spine. His thumb was shot off because he tried to cover his face.
Although Officer Manney was fired, he received money for suffering through “post-traumatic stress disorder.” The Hamilton family has not received anything.
“I know that the trauma that I have lived with,” Maria says. “No human being should have this. Nobody should have to cope with this. Thank God Dontre’s siblings are grown men…. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I had small children.”
After Dontre’s death, Maria started Mothers for Justice United as a way of connecting mothers so that mothers can begin healing together and collaboratively work toward ending police terror.
Maria was never afraid of the police, really, before this incident. “My mom was a police officer, and I considered the police [to] be Mr. Friendly if we needed anything,” Maria says. Now her views have changed. Still, she does not solely blame Officer Manney. She blames the whole police system for allowing an institution to exist that criminalizes Blackness.
While Manney is living on money he received from the Milwaukee police, Maria almost lost her home because of the grief with which she is suffering. “I was about to be homeless, because I’ve been living on my life savings, because of funeral costs. I have disassociation and depression. I couldn’t work but that didn’t [qualify me] for disability,” Maria explains.
“Justice for me looks like Milwaukee reevaluating the entire police system,” says Maria Hamilton.
“Justice for me looks like Milwaukee reevaluating the entire police system,” she says. Justice for me looks like fixing housing in Milwaukee.”
On Mother’s Day in 2015, Maria led the Mothers’ March in Washington, DC. She explains that she is able to do this work because of her beautiful son’s continued influence on her life. “His smile, his eyes, his soul are so comforting in my life and even in death. He’s talking to me. He gets me up in the morning, and I thank him so much for the time I’ve spent with him,” Maria says.
Maria is constantly working, and constantly seeking support for Mothers for Justice United.
“This isn’t my work,” she says. “This is God’s work. I relive Dontre’s life every time I hear a mother’s story. We need to tell our stories in order to go through life and in order to have a life.”