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DA Chisholm Made the Right Call on the Sylville Smith Shooting

Dec. 20, 2016
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Last week, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm charged former MPD officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown with first degree reckless homicide for killing Sylville Smith in the Sherman Park neighborhood in August. Smith’s death—along with the sense of powerlessness that many Milwaukeeans feel at the hands of the police—led to a weekend of violence and unrest that we hope is never repeated.

Now, the prosecution begins in earnest. Of course we don’t want to try Heaggan-Brown in the press. He is entitled to a fair and impartial trial and is innocent until proven guilty of all charges brought against him. (In October, Heaggan-Brown was fired and charged with three felonies and two misdemeanors in a sexual assault case not related to the Smith shooting.) But from the evidence presented in last week’s criminal complaint, we support Chisholm’s decision to bring charges. According to the complaint, Heaggan-Brown shot Smith once in the bicep while Smith was “raising his gun upward” to throw his gun over a fence into another yard. Smith then fell to the ground and Heaggan-Brown shot him in the chest and killed him. It was the second shot that Chisholm argues was a crime. 

Chisholm has a good idea about what happened between Heaggan-Brown and Smith because Heaggan-Brown and his partner were both wearing body cameras. Chisholm was able to view the footage, but the public has not and likely will not during the prosecution. 

We believe that Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission has a good body camera policy in place for the MPD, which requires officers to turn on their cameras when they are “engaged in investigatory or enforcement actions.” That policy must be enforced. However, we would like the commission to craft a policy that requires the MPD to release video footage of an officer-involved fatal shooting as quickly as possible, and not wait for the district attorney to make a charging decision, which can take months. Other departments release footage earlier in the interest of promoting transparency and improving trust between the police and community. For example, Cincinnati, whose police department is a national model for good policing, releases its footage about 24 hours after an incident, if possible.

Although video footage doesn’t always answer every question about these incidents, we believe that it’s better to release the footage quickly and not withhold this information from the public. That’s how resentment, misinformation and frustration sets in. We’re asking law enforcement to trust the public with this information as quickly as possible.

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