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Former Milwaukee police officer charged with homicide for shooting that set off violent unrest

A former Milwaukee police officer is charged in the fatal shooting of a black man that sparked nights of rioting in the Wisconsin city. (Video: Reuters)

A former police officer in Milwaukee was charged with homicide Thursday for fatally shooting a man in August, an incident that sparked days of violent unrest on the city’s streets.

Authorities said that while Sylville K. Smith was initially armed during his encounter with police, he had thrown his gun away and fallen to the ground when an officer fired a shot into his chest.

Dominique Heaggan-Brown, the officer, is already facing charges of sexual assault and prostitution stemming from accusations made while demonstrations over Smith’s shooting continued to roil Milwaukee. Heaggan-Brown, 24, was arrested in October on those charges and, not long after, fired by the Milwaukee Police Department.

Heaggan-Brown fatally shot Smith, 23, after an August traffic stop in the city’s Sherman Park neighborhood. Police said Smith was chased by Heaggan-Brown and had turned to face the officer while holding a gun.

Milwaukee police officer who fatally shot Sylville Smith arrested, charged with sexual assault

Authorities said that Heaggan-Brown was wearing a body camera when he fired at Smith, with the first shot hitting Smith in the arm and the second striking him in the chest. Edward A. Flynn, the Milwaukee police chief, had pushed back against suggestions that Smith was unarmed, saying that he had a gun in his hand when turning toward Heaggan-Brown.

The criminal complaint filed Thursday in Milwaukee County court said that while Smith “was armed with a semi-automatic pistol” when he ran away, he had already thrown it away and was unarmed when Heaggan-Brown fired the second of two shots.

Body camera footage from the scene depicted Smith, gun in hand, turning his head and upper body toward the officers after he approached a chain-link fence between two houses, according to the complaint, which cites Ricardo Tijerino, a special agent with the state’s Department of Justice, which investigated the shooting.

Smith then “raises the gun upward” while looking toward the officers “and throws the gun over the fence into the yard,” according to the complaint. While Smith was lifting the gun, Heaggan-Brown fired one shot, hitting him in the right biceps.

After being shot, Smith fell to the ground, and less than two seconds after the first shot was fired, Heaggan-Brown fired again, hitting him in the chest, the complaint continued. Authorities said that in an interview with investigators, Heaggan-Brown told them he fired the second shot because he believed Smith was reaching for his waist.

Footage obtained from body cameras worn by Heaggan-Brown and another officer show “that at the time of the second shot, Smith was unarmed and had his hands near his head,” the complaint states. After the second shot, the complaint stated, Smith could be seen reaching his left hand toward his waist, but Heaggan-Brown told him to stop reaching and moved Smith’s hand away from his waist.

“A review of the body camera footage shows that at no time after the shooting did Heaggan-Brown or any other officer search Smith for a second firearm,” the complaint states. “In fact, when Smith demonstrably reaches for his waistband after being shot the second time, Heaggan-Brown does not discharge his weapon, but moves Smith’s hand away with his own hand.”

Fatal shootings by police in the U.S. this year

Officers are rarely charged for on-duty shootings, and in those cases where charges are brought, convictions are even less common. Last week, a jury in South Carolina deadlocked in the case of a former South Carolina police officer recorded shooting a fleeing motorist after a traffic stop, much as a mistrial was declared in a case involving a former officer charged in Ohio.

Heaggan-Brown is now the 79th officer charged with murder or manslaughter for an on-duty shooting since 2005, according to Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who studies arrests of officers. Out of that group, the same number of officers have been convicted (27) as have not been (30), Stinson said, while 22 other cases are pending.

The number of officers charged has increased in recent years amid intense focus on how police use deadly force, and video evidence has increasingly been a factor in such cases.

Smith is one of 912 people fatally shot by police officers in the United States this year, according to a Washington Post database tracking such shootings. His death set off volcanic anger in Wisconsin’s biggest city, with multiple buildings set on fire one night and bouts of gunfire the following night. Several law enforcement officers were wounded during the unrest, which made Milwaukee the latest in a series of U.S. cities to erupt after a death at the hands of police.

While city officials were trying to restore calm after the shooting, authorities were contacted by a man who told them that Heaggan-Brown had raped him.

According to court documents, the man who made the report told investigators that he had gone to a bar with Heaggan-Brown, where they “sat and watched television as coverage of the Sherman Park protests aired.” This man told police he had difficulty remembering what happened after leaving the bar and said he woke up being assaulted, the criminal complaint states.

When authorities began investigating this report, they discovered evidence that Heaggan-Brown had tried to offer two people money for sex, according to the complaint. Investigators also say they found images on his phone showing nude photos of another person, some showing sexual contact, but this person told police they did not consent to the photos or contact.

Why Milwaukee boiled over with violence after police shooting death

After Heaggan-Brown was arrested and, later, fired, the investigation into Smith’s shooting continued. Under Wisconsin law, any death involving a law enforcement officer must be investigated by an independent agency.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation finished its probe into the shooting in September, about a month after the shooting, and handed its findings over to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm for a decision about charges.

Heaggan-Brown was charged Thursday with one count of first-degree reckless homicide, according to court records. This is a felony described in state law as “recklessly [causing] the death of another human being under circumstances which show utter disregard for human life.”

If convicted, Heaggan-Brown could face up to 60 years in prison. No defense attorney was initially listed for him, but Steve Kohn, an attorney for the former officer, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he would fight the charge.

“From our perspective, there’s plenty to work with just within the four corners of the complaint, even before we’ve gotten discovery,” Kohn told the newspaper.

Heaggan-Brown is still listed as an inmate in the county jail, and his address in the shooting case was listed as Milwaukee County’s Criminal Justice Facility, which houses that jail.

He is scheduled to make an initial appearance in court Friday afternoon in the homicide case. There is also a status conference scheduled for Friday morning in his sexual assault case.

Further reading:

Milwaukee officials, seeking to keep the peace, imposed a curfew for teenagers

This story has been updated since it was first published at 12:52 p.m.