This story has gotten little play outside of the upper Midwest, but last week the Milwaukee police killed a mentally ill homeless man named Dontre Hamilton, age 31. After two different Milwaukee police patrols responded to calls that he was loitering outside of a Starbucks – in both cases the responding officers spoke with Hamilton, determined that he was not committing a crime, and departed without incident – a third pair of officers approached him. In a chain of events that isn't entirely clear, Hamilton ended up with one of the officers' batons. Seeing him armed with…a stick, one of the officers drew his gun without warning and shot him.
It doesn't strike me as productive to try to sort out the chain of events. Some accounts (including, of course, the police) describe Hamilton as violent and aggressive. Others claim the police initiated the violent part of the encounter by trying to manhandle Hamilton, presumably to get him to leave the area. What interests me more is the fact that, once a cop reached the (questionable, but let's accept it as valid for the sake of argument) conclusion that deadly force was not only justified but necessary, Hamilton was shot ten times in a matter of seconds. Ten bullets were necessary to neutralize the threat posed by one outnumbered homeless man.
Ordinarily I leave the sociology to sociologists but bear with me here. I've harbored this theory for a long time and I don't know how to set it up in a way that won't make it sound weird so I will just throw it out there: have pro sports, and particularly football, led a large part of our society to believe that large black males are capable of feats of superhuman strength? Does a police officer pull his gun and believe – sincerely believe – that no less than ten bullets are needed to subdue a suspect when he happens to be black, male, and larger than average?
It's possible that the answer is simpler. For example, we have considerable evidence that when cops start shooting they tend not to stop shooting until they're empty. Additionally, we know that when the police are scrutinized for using excessive force or the disturbingly high number of black males who die in custody the Hamilton story is the standard line: the pitiable, outmatched police officer was faced with a large black male suspect with the strength of a dozen stout men, flipping over cars and punching through brick walls. Deadly force was the only option, naturally.
It would be staggering if there was no correlation between weekends spent watching mostly large, mostly black males perform athletic feats that defy description while showing the kind of strength usually associated with adult bears and the belief of so many Americans that every confrontation with a black male calls for the use of force – and the greatest available amount of force at that.
The Hamilton shooting naturally brings to mind other instance of excessive use of force by law enforcement. The parallels to Zimmerman/Martin, though, jumped out at me first. We have the white cop / wannabe cop initiating the encounter with a black male who was pre-judged to be a significant threat, the rapid escalation after a shoving match with an unclear instigator, and the inevitable conclusion that pulling out a gun and shooting the guy is the only viable option.
You might think that two police officers with guns, pepper spray, nightsticks, handcuffs, radio backup, and the presumptive support of the entire criminal justice system on their side would go into an encounter with a not-quite-right homeless man sleeping outside of a Starbucks with the assumption that they have the upper hand. In fact the only way to come to the opposite conclusion involves a sincere belief that a lone black male is, by virtue of being a black male, capable of such incredible feats of strength that no assumption could be unrealistic. Could Dontre Hamilton, armed with a stick, kill two armed police officers? Of course he can, if those police officers buy into the stereotypes of large black males as athletes who can toss other 300 pound men around like matchsticks.
Giving the officers every benefit of the doubt, it still does not add up to a need to pump ten bullets into a single person in order to protect themselves. Going into an encounter with the assumption that the suspect has Hercules-like strength – the kind glorified on Sundays – is a necessary precondition to an enthusiastic trigger finger.