ANOTHER BLACK man has been shot to death by police, triggering an angry eruption and feeding cable news with fresh images nearly indistinguishable from those of Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. Once again, an American city is seized by rioting, flames, gunshots and fear — an exclamation point on this long, blistering, toxic summer.
This time, maybe not just coincidentally, the violence has convulsed the nation’s most segregated city, Milwaukee, which a city alderman calls “the worst place to live for African Americans in the entire country.”
That probably is not a great overstatement given the dysfunction of Wisconsin’s biggest city, where the familiar elements of inner-city decay — poverty, joblessness, hopelessness, crime and toxic relations between the police and the black community — are exacerbated by racial disparities that are among the more pronounced in the nation. African Americans, who make up 40 percent of the city’s residents, contribute to some of the nation’s deepest state achievement gaps, highest rates of high school suspension, and worst poverty gaps. It’s no bargain to be black in Brew City.
To understand why Milwaukee’s black community is seething is not to justify the riots that erupted Saturday after the death of Sylville K. Smith, 23. Nor is it to excuse Mr. Smith himself, who had an extensive arrest record. According to police, he was holding a semiautomatic handgun with 23 bullets when, seconds after fleeing on foot following a traffic stop, he was shot to death in a fenced-in area when he turned toward the city police officer who was chasing him.
If that account holds up — and video from the officer’s body camera may settle the question — then the officer, a three-year veteran, was justified in opening fire. Desperate to quell the rage and destruction, Milwaukee’s mayor, Tom Barrett (D), has imposed a 10 p.m. curfew for teenagers as the city braces for a continuation of the weekend’s violence. And he has asked that the body-camera footage be released immediately.
If the footage depicts what the police say it does, it could help restore order and put out the fires that have so far consumed an auto parts shop, a gas station, a liquor store, a supermarket, cars and other property in the city’s heavily black Sherman Park neighborhood. Police officers have been injured, though none seriously, as have civilians. The state, which has custody of the video, would be wise to make it public without delay.
A possible saving grace is that a 2014 Wisconsin law mandates that an independent state agency take charge of investigations in police-involved killings. That could dampen suspicions among African Americans that accountability and impartiality are unlikely, or that real justice is impossible.
Still, the city and especially its black community are often regarded with thinly concealed contempt by state officials, a problem that has worsened under Gov. Scott Walker (R). Mr. Smith’s death has lit a fuse. It will take sensitivity on the part of authorities, plus a healthy dose of transparency and a commitment to work on entrenched problems, to ensure that the destructive force is contained.