A Milwaukee police officer who fatally shot a 23-year-old man during a 2016 foot chase was acquitted by a jury Wednesday. Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown had faced up to 60 years in prison on the charge of first-degree reckless homicide for his role in the death of Sylville Smith.
Last August, then-Milwaukee Police Department Officer Heaggan-Brown and another officer approached Smith over suspicions that he was involved in a drug deal. Smith, who was armed with a handgun, took off running toward a chain-link fence. He threw his gun over the fence, just as Heaggan-Brown opened fire.
The first shot hit Smith in the arm, and the second, which was fired after Smith fell to the ground, hit him in the chest.
Prosecutors said that Heaggan-Brown’s first shot was reasonable, his second was not, as he no longer had any reason to fear for his life. “Shooting someone point blank when he’s on the ground is utter disregard for human life,” Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm argued.
The defense argued that Heaggan-Brown had been trained to think that Smith could have had a second weapon, and emphasized that the entire encounter took only a few seconds. “The state admits that the first shot was a justified shot,” defense attorney Jonathan Smith said. “And our argument is that justification did not change over the course of 1.69 seconds between shots.”
It’s the second time this week a police officer has been found not guilty on charges for fatally shooting a black man — last Friday, Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez was cleared on all charges after shooting and killing Philando Castile during a traffic stop.
Smith’s shooting triggered two nights of protests last August, during which police arrested at least 14 people as protesters reportedly burned businesses and attacked news reporters. The demonstrations grew so intense that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett ordered the city be placed under curfew, prompting Gov. Scott Walker to activate the National Guard.
Smith’s father, Patrick Smith, urged people to stay calm after the verdict. “I really don’t want them to act irrationally toward the cops, because all cops ain’t bad,” he said.
Heaggan-Brown was fired from the Milwaukee force in October over unrelated sexual assault charges, which are set to go to trial in August.