An acquittal in Milwaukee

Last August, Dominique Heaggan-Brown, an African-American police officer in Milwaukee, shot and killed Sylville Smith, an African-American suspect with a lengthy record who was armed and fleeing the police.

Anti-police rioting ensued. Four officers were injured.

It was clear from the beginning that the African-American policeman did not shoot Smith for reasons having anything to do with race. But this didn’t matter to the local rioters or to Black Lives Matter activists. Nor did it matter that the facts surrounding the shooting had not yet emerged. As I wrote:

The locals are using the incident as an excuse to riot and attack police officers regardless of the merits. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement can be expected to use the incident to incite anti-police sentiment, just as they continue to use the justified killing of Michael Brown who also attacked a police officers (Brown was unarmed). BLM protesters will continue to chant that they want “dead cops” and want them “now.”

When the facts emerged, via the body camera Heaggan-Brown was wearing, they showed that the officer, who was chasing Smith, shot him once in the arm knocking him down. Smith rose from the ground, grabbed his gun, turned partly toward Heaggan-Brown and, in the process, threw the gun over the fence. Less than two seconds later, 1.69 seconds to be exact, Heaggan-Brown shot Smith in the chest.

On these facts, the Milwaukee prosecutor chose to charge Heaggan-Brown with homicide. The prosecution agreed that the first shot was justified self-defense, but deemed the second a felony.

Given the brief interval between the shots, this strikes me as cutting things too fine. That’s how the jury saw it too.

Jurors viewed the incident multiple times, at real speed, in slow motion, and frame-by-frame. Then, they heard from the only defense witness, an expert in police use of force, who happened to have written the use of force manual used by Milwaukee police officers.

He testified that the defendant acted in accordance with his training because officers are trained to assume that a suspect with one weapon may be carrying a second. He also emphasized that the defendant experienced these events in real time, not slow motion. In other words, this was a split second decision — one made in less than 1,69 seconds because the decision was made before the trigger was pulled the second time.

The jury included four African-Americans. It deliberated for about ten hours before acquitting Haeggan-Brown on all charges — first-degree reckless homicide, punishable by up to 40 years in prison, second-degree reckless homicide, and homicide by negligent operation of a firearm.

Why did the prosecution throw the book at the officer based on such a weak case? It may have thought the fact that Smith threw his gun away just before being killed gave it hope of obtaining a conviction. But I suspect that, as happened in Baltimore, the decision was an effort to appease the anti-police segment of the Milwaukee’s African-American population.

The prosecutor himself said:

There’s this sense of unease that the community has when they see these officer-involved deaths. And they want some accountability for it. This is one instance where they were able to get that public accountability.

But the purpose of the criminal justice system is not to try to satisfy demands for “accountability.” The purpose is to punish crime.

There was no crime here. As David French says:

We can’t impute god-like perception to police officers, and the split-second reasonable decision to fire on an armed suspect isn’t something that has to be reconsidered with every pull of the trigger. In this case, the jury reached the just result.


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