Video Release of Milwaukee Police Shooting Delayed
By Ashley Luthern
Body camera footage of a fatal police shooting that sparked unrest in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood will not be released until the Milwaukee County district attorney makes a charging decision, Attorney General Brad Schimel said Monday.
Schimel said the body camera footage would not answer all the questions about what happened during the interaction that led to the fatal police shooting. The release of the footage could compromise the investigation, he said.
Three officers were on the scene quickly and two of them were wearing body cameras; those officers have not viewed any of the footage, he said. All three have undergone initial interviews and were cooperative, he said.
"The investigation is ongoing and it is done only when the prosecutor is satisfied that the investigators have given them all we can," Schimel said. "That means until a charging decision is final there could always be follow-up."
Schimel is head of the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which is leading the probe into the fatal shooting at the request of Milwaukee police and in compliance with a 2014 state law requiring outside investigation of officer-involved deaths.
According to preliminary information provided by city officials, Sylville Smith was shot when he ran from a traffic stop about 3:30 p.m. Aug. 13. Police Chief Edward Flynn has said body camera footage shows Smith was armed and turning toward Officer Dominique Heaggan, who then opened fire. That footage has not been released publicly. Unlike other controversial police shootings around the country, both the officer and the suspect were black.
"Release of the videos would compromise the integrity of the investigation," Schimel said.
"We do not want to create the worst-case scenario: That the DA determines that charges might be appropriate and then cannot complete a successful investigation because we let the investigation get compromised," he later added.
An autopsy showed Smith suffered one gunshot wound to the chest and one gunshot wound to the right arm, the Milwaukee County medical examiner's office said Friday.
The fatal police shooting touched off two nights of violent unrest in the Sherman Park neighborhood, which many observers said had its roots in decades of systematic problems including segregation and poverty.
During those two nights, eight businesses were torched, at least six squad cars were damaged, at least four officers were injured and two teens were wounded in separate shootings. Three people have been charged in connection with looting at a liquor store. Authorities estimate the damage at several millions of dollars.
Schimel urged the public to have patience, saying the investigation will be expedited but not rushed. Thirteen state agents responded to the scene and the investigation is a "top priority," he said. The state's crime lab investigators wore body armor and were delayed by the violent unrest after the shooting, he said.
Crime lab analysts are working to examine DNA evidence on the gun recovered and comparing it with a federal database to determine if it had been linked to any other cases, Schimel said. Authorities have said the gun was reported stolen after a burglary in March at a home in the Town of Genesee in Waukesha County.
Schimel also acknowledged some agents with the Division of Criminal Investigation are former members of the Milwaukee Police Department, which has more than 1,800 sworn officers. Those who are hired are experienced investigators, oftentimes retired detectives from the department, he said.
"The likelihood that there would be some relationship between a particular patrol officer, who is going to be much younger than an experienced detective, and that detective is small, and if there is any relationship at all that investigator would not be permitted to have any role in the investigation," Schimel said.
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The family of Dontre Hamilton, who was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer in 2014, raised concerns when they learned at least half of the Department of Justice agents and a top supervisor responsible for the state's investigation into Hamilton's death had long careers with the Milwaukee Police Department before joining the Department of Justice.
One of the state lawmakers who sponsored the legislation requiring independent officer-involved deaths also expressed concern that the Justice Department did not truly lead the probe into Hamilton's death and instead primarily reviewed reports from the Milwaukee Police Department, which did the bulk of the work.
Hamilton was fatally shot April 30, 2014. The state turned over its investigative reports to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm in early August, more than three months later. Chisholm announced his decision not to charge the officer in late December.
Asked if this case would follow a similar timeline, Schimel said: "We are very optimistic that this will move much faster."
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During the news conference, Schimel expressed sympathy for Smith's family, saying, "No one would want to trade places with them."
"They have some distrust of the system and that is understandable under the circumstances," he said of the family.
Smith, 23, who had been arrested multiple times but had never been convicted of a felony, could legally possess a gun. His family has said he was a concealed-carry permit holder. He is survived by a 2-year-old son.
Heaggan, 24, who began his career as a police aide in 2010 and became a sworn officer three years later, was recognized by the Police Department in 2014 for helping a homeless woman. No citizen has ever filed a complaint against him with the city's Fire and Police Commission.
He is facing widespread threats on social media, and at a news conference the day after the shooting Flynn said the officer was out of town for his own safety.
In other developments Monday, Mayor Tom Barrett rescinded a 10 p.m. citywide curfew for people younger than 18 that he imposed after violence in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood. The curfew was announced Aug. 16 after two nights of violence sparked by the shooting.
Separately, Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. announced Sherman Park, part of the county's park system, would be closed between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. That order remains in effect.
Also Monday, funeral services for Smith were announced for Friday. Visitation will be held from 10 a.m. until noon, followed by a service at Christian Faith Fellowship Church in Milwaukee. The Rev. Jesse Jackson will speak at the service, the civil rights leader's Chicago office confirmed.
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