Sylville Smith was a criminal with a stolen gun in his hands when he was shot and killed in August… or was he?
Prosecutors charged a Milwaukee police officer Thursday with killing a black man in August, alleging the man had thrown his gun away and was unarmed when the officer fired the fatal shot.
Dominique Heaggan-Brown, who is also black, was charged with reckless homicide in the Aug. 13 death of Sylville Smith, which sparked two days of riots on Milwaukee’s north side. In the days after the shooting, both the police chief and the mayor had said that police video clearly showed Smith had a gun and was turning toward officers when he was shot. Thursday’s criminal complaint echoed that, but went on to describe a second shot, fired into Smith’s chest after Smith no longer had his gun.
Police Chief Edward Flynn called the charge “a little difficult to understand” and said he hadn’t seen any obvious wrongdoing by Heaggan-Brown in the footage.
Pay close attention to this next part:
Heaggan-Brown, who was fired in October over an unrelated sexual-assault case, shot Smith following a traffic stop. After fleeing police, Smith turned with a gun and was shot once in his bicep, according to the complaint. The second shot occurred less than two seconds later, after Smith was lying on the ground with his hands near his head, according to the complaint.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said in the complaint that the video shows Smith throwing the gun over a fence after the first shot. Heaggan-Brown told state agents that he believed Smith’s gun “flew” out of his hand over a fence after the first shot. The officer said he thought Smith was reaching for another weapon in his waistband so he fired the second shot.
Chisholm did not take any questions from reporters Thursday. His office said the video would not be released.
So let’s unpack this shall we?
Smith, who was brandishing a stolen Glock 19 (probably the one in the photo above), was running from Milwaukee police when he suddenly stopped and turned towards the pursuing officers.
Officer Heaggan-Brown fired, striking Smith in the bicep. Smith then either lost control of the gun, or willfully tossed it. In any event, Smith was down on the ground within two seconds with a bicep wound, and the stolen gun was on the other side of the fence, far our of his reach.
Heaggan-Brown claims Smith then reached towards his waistband, so he fired a second shot. This is the shot which proved to be fatal. The district attorney’s office is claiming that Smith’s hands were not anywhere near his waist, but were by his head when Heaggan-Brown fired the fatal round.
Milwaukee police chief Ed Flynn is standing behind Heaggan-Brown—a much safer bet than standing in front of him, if the sexual assault charge Heaggan-Brown is facing in another case has any merit—stating:
[Flynn] called the confrontation a “combat situation” and said the brain needs time to tell the finger to stop pulling the trigger. He said he hopes Chisholm has more evidence that hasn’t been released because he doesn’t want his officers to face deadly offenders and get no allowance for stress.
“The officer doesn’t get to act in slow motion,” Flynn said.
Flynn is half-right, which is better than normal.
Officers, like anyone else, get a certain amount of leeway when it comes to getting off the trigger once the threat has dissipated. That leeway, however, isn’t infinite. When a suspect has tossed (on purpose or by accident) a firearm into an adjoining yard and now has his hands apparently raised, the time for pressing the trigger is over. Indeed, Heaggan-Brown doesn’t even begin to justify his second shot as a continuation of the same set of circumstances, and is instead claiming that Smith was reaching towards his waistband, and he feared Smith had a second weapon.
It’s going to be very interesting to see what the video shows when the case goes to trial, but as prosecutors tend to give officers the benefit of the doubt, I suspect the video is damning.