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.

Ten times.

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.

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Others claim the police initiated the violent part of the encounter by trying to manhandle Hamilton, presumably to get him to leave the area.
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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.

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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.
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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.

42 thoughts on “STRENGTH OF MANY MEN”

  • Anonymouse says:

    This is certainly a sobering thought for a Monday. In my state, a big scandal is the death of a fully-grown white man, afflicted with Down Syndrome, who became violent when told to leave the movie theater after the movie had ended–he wanted to stay and watch it again for free. The movie theater manager called the police when the moviegoer began assaulting the theater staff, the police tried to escort the man off the premises, and the man threw a fit, suffocated, and passed out, then passed away. Now the family is Demanding Answers.

    At no time were guns ever drawn even though the man was demonstrably violent. This article makes me think about what part race played in his treatment as opposed to the homeless man hanging around outside Starbucks and proven to be bothering nobody.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Our police are out of getting completely out of control.

    Here's another example – a 95 year-old man dying via cops with taser's:

    Jeez, what sad examples of humanity some of these cops are.

    If you can't control a 95 year-old man – even if he's got a large kitchen knife – what the fucking hell are you doing being a "peace" officer?

    Look, I understand it's a very tough job.
    But the old guy was 95.

  • bumble000 says:

    Don't know where Anonymous gets the information that the Maryland man with Downs Syndrome "assaulted theater staff." Or that he was "demonstrably violent." Unless you think that a mentally impaired person getting loud and upset deserves to be pushed to the ground, handcuffed, and suffocated beneath the weight of three overzealous fat security guys is more guilty of "violence" than the people who killed him.

  • Anonymouse says:

    @bumble; do you believe the ridiculous sappy fantasy that mentally impaired people are absolute saints on earth who float through the day bestowing rainbows and kittens on the populace? This fully-grown, large man was asked to leave the theater, refused, was asked again, refused again, was told to leave, started shoving people around and flipping the heck out. "Loud and upset" doesn't begin to cover a very-large man going Hulk. That's when the police were called.

    @gulag; the 95-year-old man was tased? That's just horrific. :-(

  • "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."

    Whilst I understand the point you're trying to make, you underestimate the ease at which someone armed with "stick"—in this case a purpose built baton—can inflict harm. Regardless of size. I know 5'2" 110lbs women who could easily throw a certain 6'+ poli-sci Dr. and twist him into a silly straw. Never mind what they'd do to him with a "stick".

    Given that this was the third time that Hamilton had been disturbed, he was probably highly agitated already. This agitation would have been increased by his mental illness combined with the numerous other factors that befall those living on the streets. So yeah the guy was understandably pissed-off.

    What this highlights is how ill prepared law enforcement officers are to handle interactions with mentally ill persons. Historically, whenever highly agitated and episodic mentally ill have an encounter with the police, they generally get shot. This is not just in the US, but Australia as well, anyone able to provide data for Canada and European? Is this a result of our "kinder, gentler, let individuals decide for themselves if they should be hospitalised" social policies?—read: let's save money by dumping the mentally ill onto the streets without any support services. Nah! St. Ronny's social legacy would never lead to this.

    This is yet another example of how by cutting services in one area, doesn't cause the "problem" to magically go away—because you know mental only exists because the government is bankrolling, or something like that. It just pushes the problem onto other services that do not have the capability to adaquetly handle the situation. Police are there to enforce the law and maintain the peace. Not provide mental health services.

    That said, police should be given far better training in unarmed "combat" and defence. I should look up the stats of police and episodic mentally ill, as it would be a good baseline of a historically unarmed police force. But hey 'Murika! The gun is the magic answer to everything.

  • It's an interesting theory. If true, it may be that the NBA plays an even bigger role, since the players are more obviously black, inked and scowling as they push the limits of that "no contact sport". In any case, I think another factor has to be the terrible fearfulness of conservative whites. They live in a kind of End-Times, xenophobic nightmare of carefully stoked anxieties alternating with self-righteous victimhood. Some of the guys making up the "thin blue line" are on the borders of living out apocalyptic fantasies. A big black man defying their insecure authority is too much for some. 10 bullets will temporarily reassert some order to the universe.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    Xynzee, I can't speak for "Europe", but for my experience in Germany, 1. Homelessness basically doesn't exist, and 2. If a cop anywhere in Germany pulled heat on a citizen and killed them in the standoff there would be riots in the streets. People would consider it an unacceptable abuse of power. I hate to be that guy who says "culture" but it's absolutely true that there is a culture of violence in the US that makes that sort of thing happen more often, with fewer repercussions.

    Police here keep order without needing the threat of lethal force.

  • Csicopper says:

    Leaving a ten year old kid in handcuffs for 45 minutes after confiscating his yellow squirt gun isn't what I call good police work either. Sure, I understand scary times but the idea that after the situation is understood, a kid shouldn't have to go through an even worse horror story. "Procedure" isn't an excuse.

    I think entertainment is much to blame. (There's an old story) I used to like cop shows but they've gotten too dark. I don't find "street sweeping" entertaining. I call it literary cheating but they are a good way to sell a lot of pecker pills.

  • From the NY Times, 8/21/13: Rialto [California] is one of the few places where the impact of the cameras has been studied systematically. In the first year after the cameras were introduced here in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period.

  • Surprised that no one has mentioned the similar incident in Phoenix where police shot a mentally ill man in the back. He was twenty or thirty feet away from them and not armed, and they recorded the whole thing on video.

    In this case the man was white, for what that's worth.

    I was trying to find information on the incident and Googled "man shot in Phoenix" and then "mentally ill shot in Phoenix" (to narrow it down). Both searches give several pages of hits, so I couldn't find the exact shooting of a mentally ill person that I was looking for.

    In the US, literally anyone, mentally ill, convicted felon, whatever, is liable to have a firearm, especially in states like Arizona. I can't help thinking that that knowledge drives police behavior to some extent.

  • moderateindy says:

    I'm sorry, but your theory rates right up there with; access to, and education about, birth control turns women into sluts. Pure nonsense. Nascar is super popular, is that why people speed?
    We do have a culture of violence in this country, but to single out one sport is ridiculous. Cops have been violent a**holes forever. Psychologically it probably has way more to do with how much power they are given, and how they react whenever that power is challenged. Too many cops believe they are the law, and not peace, or enforcement officers.
    The idea that watching a large man play football somehow permeates people's psyche, and makes them afraid of black men is right up there with the theory that there is no global warming, because last winter was so brutal.
    If sports had such an effect on a culture, then Europeans would all go around acting like they were shot any time someone brushed up against them.

  • Tom Downes says:

    FWIW, I have not read an account in which the officer who shot Dontre was with a partner at the time. Where did you get that?

    Important if only because I think it is empirically true that 2+ officers at a scene of a crime does reduce police shootings. In Pilsen (a Mexican-to-white-ifying neighborhood in Chicago), you see like 5+ cars with 2 officers each show up to just about the most minor incident. Haven't had a police shooting in years in an area with lots of gang violence. It also happens to be a stance the police unions fight for – so it's an area of common ground.

  • moderateindy says:

    Scott, I think the incident you are thinking about happened in Albuquerque. They shot that guy with beanbags, a few times. Then while lying prone face down they unleashed a dog on him and a buch of officers then jumped on top of him. He ended up perishing from the violence they inflicted. All because he was camping illegally.

  • Dude, I think you are overthinking this connection to professional sports, by faultily assuming that the only reason the cops would unload on someone is if they were genuinely afraid for their lives. The simpler explanation is that the cops are racist violent pigges who just don't give a fucke.

  • I would offer that the training one receives leads as a police officer can lead to a trigger point (no pun intended). Once one decides one is in mortal danger, all other decision-making is shuttled aside and the only remaining thought is "take this guy out". You have a series of hurdles in your mind that are set up, and once the final hurdle of "my life is in danger" is cleared, all other analysis are over.

    I think that, if they were honest, most of these cops would tell you there's a moment of relief in that instant. All the decisions are made. Now you just fall back on your training and your hand goes to your holster as it has done a thousand times in the range practicing for this moment. It's all muscle memory after that.

    I don't say any of this to say it's right, or fair, or just, or how things ought to be. Just saying that LEO's are trained that once they clear the "I'm in mortal danger" hurdle, there's no more messing around after that. The additional thought of "Is one more bullet really required here?" is not going to come into play.

  • ladiesbane says:

    Guys, there is too much going on here. I'll spare you the lengthy rants and simply hurl bullet points at you.

    Sports: no, or not just sports. A much broader and more pervasive stereotype is involved, which imagines black men to be dangerous animals. Check out, among others.

    Cops: sigh. You might despise the police, but do you really think the dumbest guy in the world would decide to shoot a harmless guy ten times because nine won't do? Lots of things are involved in shooting another human being, from training and temperament to fear and panic, but judicious reasoning is rarely on the list.

    Re: Anonymouse's comment thread, I cut a mile on prison substituting for social services for developmentally disabled people and the mentally ill. They often go into the system for acts that are simply the result of having no support, from training in childhood to assistance in adulthood. Many DD adults are on permanent meds to keep them well-behaved if they lack emotional self-regulation, and it doesn't always work. (And a lot of families raid their meds.) Violent outbursts and even sexual assaults do happen — they have emotions and hormones like everyone else. But is it criminal activity? No, and yes.

    We need better laws.

  • A minor point, but the Starbucks in question is located in a space built as part of a renovation of a public park, Red Arrow Park. During the winter it serves as a skating rink.

    But the point is that the man wasn't loitering outside a private tenant, but in a public park and homeless or not, he had every right to be there as long as he wanted.

  • I don't think your football theory is especially realistic.

    Let's apply Occam's razor to this situation, and just chalk it up to racism, general contempt for the homeless and/or mentally impaired, and the wanton brutality of a crazed cop.

    Why would any other ingredient be necessary?


  • Counting the number of bullets used is futile. If the cop decides the assailant needs to be dead, then imo, the cop needs to ensure it. That's kind of a matter best left to tactical experts. I'm not one and I'm guessing the writer of this piece isn't either.

    The decision to scrutinize is the one that Hamilton needed to be killed. Are cops too quick to use deadly force? From the account above it definitely sounds like this was such a case.

    Larger picture, I seems to me that cops need better training in how to de-escalate situations. I'm a non-confrontational sort of person, and I swear every time I've been approached by a cop in an official/enforcement capacity I feel like they're goading me into some sort of reaction, by language and physical cues. If I sense this, I can imagine this is amplified 1000x for someone who is mentally ill, schizophrenic, paranoid, etc.

    Time and again we hear stories and see video of cops immediately escalating situations to the level of physical confrontation. Hamilton might still be alive if the cops just gave him a donut and ride to the nearest shelter. Who knows?

  • Leading Edge Boomer says:

    The Albuquerque police have shot nearly 40 people over the last 4 years. The Department of Justice is all over them in a recently released report. A federal monitor will probably be appointed to oversee the implementation of the recommended reforms.

  • I have some experience with homeless people/ bums in front of stores- I say it's a minor miracle that anyone would show up to boot a homeless person from out front of any store or coffee shop. Here in Dayton, at my old store, we would have someone begging for money out front. Sometimes they were nice about it, some of the times they were rude about it. The store was in a neighborhood that was about 85% black, and I felt like it was pulling teeth to get the cops to show up for ANYTHING besides assault or armed robbery…. we would throw out the same people about 4 or 5 times a week, depending on the weather. We wouldn't wait for the cops to show up, we'd throw them out ourselves. A couple personal observations: 1) we were in a very poor neighborhood, but if someone asked for food, people would go across the street to McDonalds and get some cheeseburgers for the person. I've never seen people give in higher-income neighborhoods to people asking for food or money- maybe because the people there thought "there, but for the grace of God, go I" instead of "get a job you bum!" 2) About half, maybe more, were mentally ill in some way. Most stayed at half-way homes nearby that turned them out for the day. These half-way homes were more than happy to cash the checks to "help" them, but when it came to actually taking "care" of the people… not so much. 3) I usually only got push back from the white bums. They usually got very belligerent when asked to leave. They were also in the neighborhood to buy drugs, so addiction might have played a part in their anger.

    I think fear of the "other" is what adds to the excess force in society. Dayton, like a lot of other urban areas, very segregated. Black neighborhoods on the west side of town, poor white neighborhoods on the east and north sides of town. Almost any other urban area I've lived in (Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St Paul, Washington DC/Baltimore, even Youngstown-Warren) has been similar- very little mixing my income AND by race. The most diverse was suburban Maryland, but even then Prince George's County is divided by income, if not by race.

    Since most white people grow up in neighborhoods that are not diverse, and their contact with "scary black people" usually comes in the form of taking the wrong exit when trying to go downtown, COPS on TV, or sporting events, they do not see average black people, only what they perceive black people to be. When I would tell people around here where I worked, I would usually get horrified looks or people would ask me "OMG how do you work there? Are you scared?". One of my supervisors at work actually told me that she wouldn't be able to work at my store because she couldn't handle the "urban" neighborhood. In this context, if black neighborhoods are scary, aren't the people that come from them scary?

    @ David K- I feel the exact same way when I've interacted with cops (usually when being pulled over for some traffic offense). I've had to bite my tongue as someone is giving me a lecture about my tags being expired or how fast I was going, while being as condescending as possible. It's as if they *want* conflict to happen, or are preparing for a negative response by being as obnoxious as possible as a defense mechanism. I know if my employees talked to black customers that way, there would be some mighty quick push-back from the customers. In the words of The Roots, white people "don't get the police, [they] get the protection".

  • paintedjaguar says:

    No, police are often just violent, aggressive thugs.

    White, mentally ill, non-violent & unarmed man is attacked and killed by up to six police in California. He wasn't shot – they merely tasered, suffocated and beat him to death. The entire incident was caught on police audio & video, from initial questioning of the victim to his removal by ambulance. Watch it yourself.

    Note that the victim is seated and compliant until one cop calmly pulls on latex gloves and states that his fists are "getting ready to fuck you up", at which point the victim tries to run away (what would you do?). Also note the large pool of blood left on the pavement after the beating.

    John Barnett, attorney for one of the cops, told the Los Angeles Times, "They did what they were trained to do."

    Raw video: Kelly Thomas police beating

  • Cops out of control? Yes, that certainly fits the facts.

    But there seems to be way less evidence that it has to do with assuming all blacks have the super-strength of athletes. The cops are tasing 95 year-olds, and kids, and pepper spraying sitting demonstrators, and shooting people in wheelchairs.

    The pattern does not fit anything to do with even an unrealistic fear for one's life.

    The only thing that fits, as far as I can see, is that power (and it can be monetary, this doesn't apply only to lethal force) is now admired as the one true ultimate authority. What you might call the Jack Bauer (lack of) understanding of the Bill of Rights. One effect is cops who feel they're entitled to do anything because they have the badges and the guns.

  • Scepticus says:

    Thanks for mentioning Jack Bauer. I hate that fictional fuck, and the sick fuck writers that wrote him. A significant portion of the American population is A-OK with torture as a policy because of a stupid fucking TV show.

  • I catch the bus at the location most days. Luckily I wasn't catching the bus when this happened. What bothers me the most is that of the 10 rounds fired, "several" hit the man which means that "several" more were unleashed in an area that's fairly highly trafficked. It seems like such extreme escalation on the officer's part.

  • Forgot to add: what makes the situation not so clear regarding public space is that the Starbucks is undergoing construction and operating out of a truck in front of the store, which apparently redefines what is public space and what is not. The man in question (according to a co-worker who was on site), this dude was harassing Starbucks' patrons and laying right next to the truck. Whether this is true or not I cannot corroborate.

  • A great many threads are woven into a tapestry of corruption and dysfunction. The militarization of police forces, for one. The active presumption of impunity, for a long-standing other. Then there is the simple fact that they generally see people at their worst by the very nature of their profession, and they are no more eager than any of us to be injured or killed on any given occasion. Better to be judged by twelve than carried out by six, as they say, particularly when they can put a heavy thumb on the scales by everyone getting their stories straight. And then there's the sad, simple fact that it only takes one. You can have an organization where nine out of ten are idealistic, professional, and competent, but it's that tenth who panics or rages and kills someone out of hand…at which point, the previous nine form ranks to protect that one. Throw race and class disdain into that mix and, well, here we are.

  • As an unusually small woman, it seems to me that were I confronted with the perceived potential threat of a man of any color and I had a shotgun, I would shoot him in a non-vital organ such as his foot which would compromise his power without, you know, killing him. Or both feet just to be sure.

  • @Daphne

    Shoot someone with a shotgun at close range and it probably doesn't matter what you aim for. It's going to do so much trauma that they'll probably bleed out and die anyway.

  • I'd agree with your sports premise to a point but also add the fact that our country has been othering and dehumanizing black men for hundreds of years.

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  • Has nothing to do with pro sports, has everything to do with cops being way over-armed and over-empowered to do whatever they want. Last fall, Santa Rosa PD perforated a 13-year-old kid who was carrying a pellet gun that looked like an AK-47. The cop fired eight times on Andy Lopez, seven of the bullets finding their target. There will be no consequences, there never are.

  • Daphne and Major Kong: If anecdotal evidence is worth a crap, I once had a neighbor who killed his dad by shooting him in the leg with a shotgun, trying to incapacitate but not kill him [dad was in a drunken rage and beating on mom]. Dad bled to death practically before the call for an ambulance could even be made.

    Every time I contemplate loading up the ol' shotgun with rock salt, I remember this incident and the gun stays unloaded in the closet.

  • More like evidence that homicidal sociopaths are being concentrated in the police forces. Predator models would suggest 3 in 100 interactions, this poor man's was 1in 6

  • milegrinder says:

    Cops have been trained for decades to keep pulling the trigger until the cylinder or clip is empty. There is no training except overwhelming force. Their trainers also suggest, strongly, that no cop wants to be the one whose partner was killed or injured because the shooting cop let up. Threat neutralization is the only consideration. What's changed is the weaponry. 30-40 years ago, most cops carried a .38. That ammunition was derided as marginally effective, liable to pass through but not stop someone. Then they started permitting the cops to carry hollow points. This was followed by semi-automatic sidearms with double the carrying the capacity and more effective bullets. However, it's on television that a cop squeezes the trigger only enough times to neutralize a suspect. And on the TeeVees, they also like to nick 'em somewhere so they can talk to them later. In life as we know it, no one wants to talk to you, just make up shit about what you did to get yourself killed. For some reason, DAs won't seat me on a criminal jury. Gotta figure that one out someday.

  • This starts long before a beat cop hits the streets. Even though I went through the police academy during law enforcement's efforts to professionalize, I was shocked by how quickly the us vs them mentality sinks into recruits. Add to that the job is a magnet for wanna be tough guys, and all too often those who never ever want their authority questioned. I absolutely hated the job from day one. De-escalation was taught but not emphasized.

    And, also, too, the othering thing.

  • Generally speaking, cops are afraid of people with mental illness even though they interact with them often (moreso than many people in the mental health system) and mentally ill people are only slightly more likely to be violent than the rest of the population. OTOH, it's probably less clear how mentally ill people may be provoked (they are thinking a bit differently from the rest of us) which may be part of the fear. Cops also don't like being in unpredicatble circumstances–I'm a psychologists and besides spending a lot of time with seriously mentally ill people as a psychologist and as a paraprofessional, I've also interacted a lot with cops and, for a short time screened police candidates.

    i don't excuse police their fears and the irrationality of many mentally ill people. OTOH, because they are a de facto part of the mental health system, their behavior here should be made unacceptable. the behavior of the victim is hardly proportional to the gunplay and would be step toward doing something about the gunplay in general.

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