Former Milwaukee police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown has been charged with first-degree reckless homicide in the fatal shooting of a black man. The incident sparked nights of rioting following the August shooting. (Reuters)

A former Milwaukee police officer who fatally shot a man last year, setting off violent unrest in the city, was acquitted by a jury Wednesday.

Dominique Heaggan-Brown, the former officer, was charged with homicide late last year for shooting Sylville K. Smith, who fled from a traffic stop in August.

Before he was charged in Smith’s death, Heaggan-Brown was arrested and accused of sexually assaulting someone during the intense protests prompted by the shooting. The Milwaukee Police Department fired him because of those charges, for which he is expected to stand trial in August, just after the first anniversary of Smith’s death.

Jurors reached their verdict on the second day of deliberations, according to the Associated Press, which also reported that some of Smith’s relatives shouted and cursed at the jury’s decision.

“This is an extremely distressing moment,” David Owens, an attorney representing Smith’s family, said at a news briefing after the verdict. “The jury’s verdict is obviously shocking and troubling.”

On Wednesday, Smith’s estate filed a civil lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee and Heaggan-Brown. Owens said the suit was filed at around the same time the jury’s verdict was announced.

Officials had said that after fleeing the traffic stop, Smith turned to the officer — who was wearing a body camera — while holding a gun. However, authorities said later that Smith, 23, had thrown away his semiautomatic pistol and was unarmed when Heaggan-Brown fired the second of two shots.

The criminal complaint, which cites a special agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice, said that body camera footage showed Smith turn toward officers while approaching a chain-link fence between two houses. Smith is then seen raising the gun and throwing it over the fence into the yard, the complaint stated.

While Smith was lifting the gun, Heaggan-Brown fired the first shot, hitting Smith in the arm, the complaint said. After that shot, Smith fell, and less than two seconds later, Heaggan-Brown fired again, striking him in the chest.

Heaggan-Brown later told investigators he fired the second shot because he thought Smith was reaching toward his waist. During the trial, attorneys for Heaggan-Brown argued that he was unsure whether Smith was still armed or reaching for another gun.

“I don’t think any officer, including Mr. Heaggan-Brown, ever wants to be put in this situation, where they have to opt or choose to use deadly force,” Jonathan Smith, an attorney for Heaggan-Brown, said in an interview after the verdict was announced. “We certainly have not lost sight of the fact that there was a young man who lost his life, and certainly have sympathy for the family.”

Heaggan-Brown was “trained in how to deal with certain situations” as a law enforcement officer, his attorney said, and “appreciates the fact that the jury recognized what his conduct was that day.”

The shooting last year set off intense unrest in Wisconsin’s biggest city, during which an 18-year-old was shot in the neck and numerous buildings were set on fire.

Heaggan-Brown’s acquittal is the latest in a string of similar verdicts or deadlocked juries to follow charges against police officers for using deadly force. Five days before Heaggan-Brown was found not guilty, a Minnesota police officer was also acquitted in another high-profile shooting that sparked intense protests.

The Minnesota officer, Jeronimo Yanez, fatally shot Philando Castile in a Twin Cities suburb during a traffic stop. The aftermath of that shooting was broadcast on Facebook Live, drawing international scrutiny. On Tuesday, about 24 hours before Heaggan-Brown was acquitted, Minnesota officials released dash-cam video footage showing Yanez fatally shooting Castile, pushing that encounter into national news headlines.

Smith and Castile were among 963 people fatally shot by police officers in 2016, according to a Washington Post database that tracks the shootings.

As jurors in Wisconsin cleared Heaggan-Brown, another jury was weighing the fate of a different officer. After the first jury deadlocked during the prosecution of Raymond Tensing, a former University of Cincinnati officer who shot Samuel DuBose during an off-campus stop, prosecutors sought another trial, which got underway this month. Jurors began deliberating in that second trial on Monday.

In August, Heaggan-Brown is expected to face another jury trial on the charges of sexually assaulting someone during the demonstrations after Smith’s death a year earlier. Court documents show that a man told police Heaggan-Brown raped him at about the same time other Milwaukee police officers were responding to reports of gunshots and having rocks thrown at them during the protests.

This post has been updated since it was first published. 

Further reading:

What the police officer who shot Philando Castile said about the shooting

The Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings in 2017

Milwaukee unrest: One person shot during demonstrations; curfew announced for teenagers

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