Events just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in March 2016, show just how perilous policing in America has become in our post-Ferguson world. They give voice to the “Ferguson Effect” where police are avoiding encounters that could deter crime but also result in criminal charges against them.
On March 14, 26 year old Manuel Burnley, weighing some 350 pounds, boarded a county bus, deposited two dollars and asked for a transfer that the system had discontinued. Despite the bus driver’s attempts to help him, Burnley spewed a stream of profanity, and the driver wanted him off the bus while looking for police near the bus route.
She saw two parked Brown Deer police cars and flagged down officers. Brown Deer officer Devon Kraemer was the first to approach, asking the question all cops do, “Is there a problem?” The bus driver said she had a disruptive passenger who she wanted off the bus, a massive man who was seated near the rear exit. Officer Kraemer waved to a second officer for backup and asked to unruly passenger to come to the front of the bus.
When the passenger approached, his stream of profanity began anew, along with his refusal to step off the bus, as the driver was asking. For several moments, the officers listened to the agitated rider who cared little about their authority or their directions that he step off. He ignored their offers to get off the bus or face a $691 Disorderly Conduct ticket and told them he had no intention of being taken off the bus in handcuffs, saying, “I’m not getting escorted off in handcuffs. Y’all gonna give me my motherf****n’ money. Ya’ll f****d up.”
The two Brown Deer officers moved to escort the combative man off the bus by grabbing his arms and directing him to the bus doorway via the front steps. Burnley immediately resisted and, after stepping off the bus, the officers attempted to handcuff him. Officer Kraemer tried to call for more help on her radio but didn’t know if anyone heard the call and never heard a response. Officer Michael Leeman tried to take Burnley off his feet with a bear hug and all three lost their balance and hit the ground forcefully.
The struggle was now a ground fight, with Burnley grabbing at Officer Leeman’s throat as Officer Kraemer struggled to control the left hand of the man who was almost three times her weight. She attempted to control Burnley with several knee strikes to his body but the strikes had no effect on him. Seconds later, as Burnley wrested his hand away from Officer Kraemer and pulled it under his massive body. As the fight continued, Officer Kraemer knew she was losing the ability to defend herself or her partner. And, having not yet patted the combative passenger down, she now feared Burnley had a deadly weapon of his own or access to Officer Leeman’s gun that he could use to shoot Officer Leeman or herself.
With the little strength she had left, Officer Kraemer decided she had but one option – the use of deadly force – to end the threat to her life and that of her partner. She knew that using her pepper spray would only contaminate all three combatants. And, while fighting to control Burnley’s left hand she could not reach her Taser nor expect it to effectively disable Burnley at this range. She also knew a missed Taser shot could also hit her partner. Trying to calculate her few options, Officer Kraemer made the fateful decision to shoot Burnley. While repeatedly shouting for Burnley to stop fighting, she pulled her duty weapon and fired once at Burnley’s back, which immediately ended his resistance.
Manual Burnley was handcuffed, treated at the scene, and taken to the hospital for further treatment for the gunshot wound.
Sadly, this is policing in America today. In return for her and her partner approaching a profane, combative public transportation rider, escorting him off a bus at the insistence of the driver, and attempting to arrest him after he resisted, two police officers are in a fight, they believe, for their lives. They did not ignore the call for help, they did not look the other way. In return, an officer who believed she was exhausted from the fight with a 360 pound subject who was potentially reaching for a weapon and was well within range of her partner’s weapon, and who fired her weapon at that subject now stands charged with Aggravated Battery, Use of a Dangerous Weapon, a Class E felony with a maximum sentence of a fine of $50,000 or 15 years in prison or both.
Something is wrong when an American police officer fears first for her life and that of her partner, and now fears she will be imprisoned for more than a decade.
We at the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund will stand behind Brown Deer Police Officer Devon Kraemer. We will do what we have so many other times – fight for her and raise funds for her defense in court and defend her in the court of public opinion. Please stand with us!
UPDATE – May 2017: Last November, in an early hearing on the case, Milwaukee Black Panthers were present in the courtroom, dressed in the black garb of their protest. In a blatant attempt to influence the court and public opinion, and to intimidate Officer Kraemer, one Panther said, “We have murders . . . (and) . . . We want to make sure justice is served. Whatever it takes for justice. Disruptions, disturbances, extreme economic boycotting — it’s all about the dollar, right? America was built on violence and will only respond to threats of violence or the actual act of violence.”
At a hearing in early April, several people followed Devon in courtroom hallways, recorded her movements and taunted her with an array of epithets, demanding she “plead guilty, like a man.” The threats and intimidation of another wrongly accused American police officer doing her job mirrors what we’ve heard in other areas of the country. They are a sad reflection of the empowerment of ignorant citizens who don’t care about the facts as much as advancing a destructive narrative. None of their actions will deter the LELDF from its support for Officer Kraemer, whose trial is now set for October.