Today at 4:30 p.m., the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission will hear a disciplinary appeal for former Milwaukee Police Officer Christopher Manney—the officer who shot and killed Dontre Hamilton in Red Arrow Park last spring—to determine whether or not Manney can return to his job. No matter the outcome (if needed, the hearing will continue on Friday and Saturday), it will be far from the final chapter in a case that has sparked outrage here in Milwaukee, and become all too familiar nationwide.
There are many people responsible for keeping the Hamilton case and its troubling implications in the national spotlight, including family-members-turned-activists like Nate Hamilton, and investigative journalists like Corrinne Hess. (Hess’ exhaustive piece on the Hamilton case for Milwaukee Magazine is a must-read.) Add to that list Milwaukee filmmaker and photographer Erik Ljung, who recently produced a 10-minute video on the Hamilton case for The New York Times. The video was featured on the front page of the Times’ website yesterday.
For Ljung, the video—which also includes work from Milwaukee filmmakers Dan Peters and Quinn Hester, among others—comes from an ongoing passion for the case that began on day one. “I initially heard about the shooting on April 30, 2014, the day it happened,” he tells Milwaukee Record. “It wasn’t until August that I got involved. The Hamilton family and Craig Stingley [father of Corey Stingley] led a rally after the shooting death of Michael Brown. That was the first rally I attended. I brought my camera along and I have followed the Hamilton family closely since August, both at rallies and in their personal lives. Much of that isn’t featured in the Times piece, but will be part of a longer piece.
“I felt this case in Milwaukee was particularly significant for several reasons,” Ljung continues. “Dontre Hamilton was not suspected of a crime. Dontre Hamilton was resting in a park and had been approached on two seperate occasions and officers determined he was doing nothing wrong. Dontre Hamilton suffered from mental illness, which was used as a reason that contributed to his death by MPD. The mental health discussion brought up a major discussion about what role police should play and what training they should be required to have.”
Although much of Ljung’s video focuses on the Hamilton case, its overarching subject is a year-old Wisconsin law that calls for an outside agency to investigate police shootings. Named after Michael Bell Jr.—a 21-year-old man who was killed by a Kenosha police officer in 2004—the law is the first of its kind in the country. It was signed by Gov. Scott Walker one week before the Hamilton shooting. “The shooting death of Dontre Hamilton was the very first case in the nation to fall under [the law],” says Ljung. “Since the non-indictment of several other officer related deaths nationally, many other states have been looking to Wisconsin and considering adopting a similar law. Michael Bell [Sr.] has been an absolutely unbelievable advocate for this case.”
As for the video finding a home at The New York Times, Ljung credits the right connections and perseverance. “I was shooting for a documentary about American Artisanal Cheese that [Wisconsin Foodie creator] Arthur Ircink is directing. While we were filming, a video journalist for the Times was there and I lent her my video lights. Months later when I began following the Hamilton case I began reaching out to news outlets that I had inroads with to try and bring national attention to this story. However, everyone passed on it. I reached out to the contact I had met at the Times and she had since moved on to The Wall Street Journal. They passed on it, so she connected me with her previous producer at the Times. No response. I tried again a couple months later when I was in New York on another shoot. She responded the next day and invited me in for a meeting my last day in town. We kept in touch for several months after that and she finally agreed to run the story in late December. It took about three months to edit the eight months’ worth of footage I had amassed.”
Watch the fruit of Ljung’s labors below, and read the accompanying Times piece here.