Monday, jury selection will begin in Milwaukee for former police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown. He fatally shot 23-year-old Sylville Smith last summer. The killing sparked two-days of violence in the Sherman Park neighborhood.
For 48 hours last August, Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood captured people’s attention across the country. What they saw on TV were images of police in riot gear, buildings burning and crowds of angry people. It followed the police killing of a young black man. A few days later, we spoke with community activist Camille Mays.
“Like, they can go rebuild their buildings, how do we rebuild hope and trust with the system? Like, they can go rebuild their buildings, how do we rebuild hope and trust with the system?” Mays said.
Mays said anger had been building for quite some time, before the shooting, over a lack of good-paying jobs, quality schools and over-policing. For some people, the police killing of Sylville Smith lit the flame.
Earlier in the day on August 13, Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown and his partner attempted to stop a vehicle. The people inside fled on foot, and a chase pursued.
From the beginning, the Milwaukee Police Department and Mayor Tom Barrett insisted Sylville Smith was armed, and that the body camera the officer was wearing would prove the shooting was justified.
“I have however seen a still photo extracted from that. And that still photo demonstrates without question that he had a gun in his hand and I want our community to know that, that he had a gun in his hand,” Barrett said.
Then late last year, the Milwaukee County District Attorney charged the former officer with homicide. According to the complaint, Sylville Smith slipped during the chase and dropped his gun. He then picked it up and turned toward the officer who fired the first shot. It’s the second shot that has been called into question. The DA says it occurred after Smith had tossed his gun over a fence.
Smith’s family has faced a lot of emotions when attending the pretrial hearings for Heaggan-Brown, according to Vaun Mays.
“His body language, his almost emotionless attitude. That takes a toll on the people in the court. A lot of the times their reactions when we’re leaving the court are extreme. They get distraught, they cry,” Mays says.
Mays is sitting in Sherman Park – the place where a lot of the tension occurred last summer – and a lot of gatherings that healed. He has started a youth organization called Program the Parks.
He says he hopes anger does not boil over again, but if it does, he’ll work to diffuse it. For him, justice would be a court convicting the former officer of homicide; it would carry a 60-year sentence.
Heaggan-Brown will also go to trial in August on sexual assault charges. They’re separate from the Smith shooting, and the reason the MPD fired the officer.