Angry demonstrators clashed with police in Milwaukee on Saturday night after a police officer fatally shot a man who had a gun during a foot chase that turned deadly.
The violence erupted on the city’s predominantly black north side, an area beset with a history of violence and distrust between police and the community.
During a midnight news conference, Mayor Tom Barrett stood beside city leaders to plead for an end to the chaos that had been unfolding for hours on city streets, according to the Associated Press.
“We have to have calm,” Barrett said. “There are a lot of really good people who live in this neighborhood.”
Sunday afternoon, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker released a statement saying he had activated the Wisconsin National Guard to “aid local law enforcement upon request.”
“I commend the citizens who volunteered in clean-up efforts this morning,” the statement said. “This act of selfless caring sets a powerful example for Milwaukee’s youth and the entire community. I join Milwaukee’s leaders and citizens in calling for continued peace and prayer.”
“It is also important for citizens to know that Wisconsin is the first state in the nation to have a law requiring an independent investigation anytime there is a shooting by a law enforcement officer that leads to a death,” the statement added.
At a press conference Sunday afternoon, Barrett said a still photo extracted from the officer’s body camera footage “demonstrates without question” that the suspect had a gun in his hand.
“The police officer didn’t know it at the time, but there were 23 rounds in that gun,” Barrett added, noting the suspect had more bullets in his gun than the officer had in his.
Saturday night’s conflict began with a traffic stop about 3:30 p.m., police said. After being pulled over, two individuals fled from the car, prompting the officer — a black 24-year-old with six years of experience — to chase them, Police Chief Edward Flynn told reporters Sunday.
Flynn said the stop was made for a suspicious vehicle that turned out to be a rental car.
Before shots were fired, he said, the entire interaction lasted between 20 and 25 seconds and covered just a few dozen feet. The 23-year-old suspect — identified by police Sunday as Sylville K. Smith — ended up running to a fenced yard where he turned toward the officer with a gun in his hand before he was shot, Flynn said.
Smith died at the scene and a second 23-year-old man was taken into custody. The chief noted that there was no evidence Smith discharged his weapon.
“That officer had to make a split-second decision when the person confronted him with a handgun,” Milwaukee Police Assistant Chief Bill Jessup told reporters at the scene, according to ABC affiliate WISN. “This is a risk they take every day on behalf of our community.”
A woman identifying herself as Smith’s mother told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that police have offered her little information about her son’s killing.
“My son is gone due to the police killing my son,” Mildred Haynes told the paper Sunday. “I am lost.”
Within hours of the shooting, a crowd began to engage in skirmishes with police on the north side that stretched late into the night, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Assistant Police Chief James Harpole later told reporters that the crowd was 200 people strong.
The paper reported that the tension began when the crowd confronted officers who had arrived near the scene of the shooting in riot gear.
When officers began to leave the scene, some members of the crowd “started smashing the windows and side of a squad car” and “another vehicle was set on fire,” the paper reported.
When police returned to the location with more riot gear, someone in the crowd fired shots into the air, the paper reported.
A reporter and a photographer from the paper were then chased from the scene and assaulted by someone in the crowd, the Journal Sentinel reported.
A gas station was set on fire about 10 p.m., police said, but firefighters could not reach the site because of gunfire. Three people working inside the station got out safely, police said. Fires were also started at multiple businesses, including a bank, a beauty supply company and an O’Reilly Auto Parts store, according to WISN.
By 2 a.m., a supermarket and a liquor store also had been set on fire, the station reported.
On Sunday, Flynn told reporters that 17 people were arrested throughout the night. Most of the arrests were for civil disobedience and four were for burglary charges.
Authorities said no law enforcement officers discharged any weapons overnight, but there was widespread shooting in the area. Police said rioters damaged seven squad cars and one military-style police vehicle was hit by eight rounds of gunfire. Four officers were injured in the violence before being treated and released, police said.
A 16-year-old teenager was also struck by crossfire and treated for non-life threatening injuries, police said.
As police struggled to disperse the crowd Saturday night, they detailed the growing chaos on Twitter:
Barrett said at the news conference that young people had encouraged others to join them by spreading news of the violence on social media, according to the Journal Sentinel. He implored parents to contact their children and bring them home and said police had “shown an amazing amount of restraint” amid the violence, the paper reported.
“Our police officers are doing everything they can to restore order,” he said. “If you love your son, if you love your daughter, text them, call them, pull them by their ears, get them home.”
Near the end of the news conference, Alderman Khalif Rainey linked Saturday’s violence to the ongoing tension between police and frustrated black Milwaukeeans, the Journal Sentinel reported. He called the area where the shooting occurred “a powder keg.”
“This entire community has sat back and witnessed how Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has become the worst place to live for African-Americans in the entire country,” Rainey said. “Now this is a warning cry. Where do we go from here? Where do we go as a community from here?”
“Do we continue – continue with the inequities, the injustice, the unemployment, the under-education, that creates these byproducts that we see this evening? … The black people of Milwaukee are tired. They’re tired of living under this oppression. This is their existence. This is their life. This is the life of their children.”
Police told the Journal Sentinel that the officer was wearing a body camera when he fired at Smith. Police said Smith was struck once in his chest and once in the arm.
The officer was not injured.
Capt. Mark Stanmeyer told WISN that Smith had a “lengthy arrest record.” Police said he was carrying a semiautomatic handgun traced to a burglary in March.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation will lead a probe of the shooting, WISN reported.
Dan Simmons contributed to this report from Milwaukee.