Prosecutors charged a Milwaukee police officer Thursday with killing a man in August, alleging the man had thrown his gun away and was unarmed when the officer fired the fatal shot.
Dominique Heaggan-Brown was charged with reckless homicide in the Aug. 13 death of Sylville Smith, which sparked two days of riots on Milwaukee’s north side. In the days after the shooting, both the police chief and the mayor had said that police video clearly showed Smith had a gun and was turning toward officers when he was shot. Thursday’s criminal complaint echoed that, but went on to describe a second shot, fired into Smith’s chest after Smith no longer had his gun.
Heaggan-Brown, who was fired in October over an unrelated sexual assault case, shot Smith following a traffic stop. After fleeing police, Smith turned with a gun and was shot once in his bicep, according to the complaint. The second shot occurred less than two seconds later, after Smith was lying on the ground with his hands near his head, according to the complaint.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said in the complaint that the video shows Smith throwing the gun over a fence. Heaggan-Brown told state agents that he believed Smith’s gun “flew” out of his hand over a fence after the first shot. The officer said he thought Smith was reaching for another weapon in his waistband so he fired the second shot.
Chisholm’s office said he would not hold any news conference or issue any statement Thursday on the charge and the video would not be released.
Heaggan-Brown was scheduled to make an initial court appearance Friday. His attorney, Jonathan Smith, said that he hasn’t seen any of the state’s evidence but a read of the criminal complaint raises “issues.” He didn’t elaborate but did promise a “vigorous” defense.
Smith’s family issued a statement thanking Chisholm.
“We appreciate that the District Attorney has shown independence and sound judgment in prosecuting the officer who shot and killed Sylville,” the statement said. “We also appreciate that this is but the first step in holding that officer accountable, but a necessary step in bringing some measure of justice.”
His mother, Mildred Haynes, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the charge should have been tougher.
“He shot him in the arm and shot him again in the chest. … To me, he shot to kill,” she said.
Police Chief Ed Flynn said the day after the shooting that Heaggan-Brown opened fire after Smith turned toward the officer and began to raise his gun despite Heaggan-Brown’s warnings to drop it. The chief said then that he had seen the body camera video but did not mention that Smith was unarmed when the second shot was fired and said it appeared to him the shooting was lawful.
Mayor Tom Barrett said during the same news conference that he had seen a still photo from the body camera video that showed Smith facing Heaggan-Brown with a gun in his hand. Barrett told reporters on Thursday that he still hasn’t seen the video and called on prosecutors to release it. He said it appears Heaggan-Brown’s first shot was justified but the second wasn’t.
The neighborhood where Smith was killed is predominantly black. Heaggan-Brown grew up there and has lived near the shooting scene since at least 2012. The night of the shooting, demonstrators burned six businesses and a police squad car and threw rocks and bottles at police. More violence broke out the next night, with one man being shot and injured and protesters again throwing rocks and bottles at officers. Police arrested about 40 people over the course of three nights. Flynn blamed protesters from outside of Milwaukee for much of the unrest.
The sexual assault case that led to Heaggan-Brown’s firing stemmed from an incident the night of Aug. 14. According to a criminal complaint, Heaggan-Brown and another man went to a bar where they drank heavily and watched television coverage of the unrest. The man told investigators that Heaggan-Brown bragged that he could do anything he wanted without repercussions, and that he woke up to Heaggan-Brown sexually assaulting him.
Heaggan-Brown also was charged with soliciting two other people for sex several times since December 2015 and with sexually assaulting another unconscious person in July 2016 and photographing that victim naked. He faces two felony counts of second-degree sexual assault, two misdemeanor prostitution counts and one felony count of capturing an intimate representation of a person without consent.