Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Sylville Smith Probe Looks Suspicious

AG Brad Schimel’s links to Milwaukee Police raise questions about his investigation.

By - Aug 25th, 2016 12:38 pm
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Brad Schimel. Photo courtesy of the State of Wisconsin.

Brad Schimel. Photo courtesy of the State of Wisconsin.

It was a bipartisan effort by state representatives Chris Taylor (D-Madison) and Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) that created the law passed in April 2014 requiring an outside investigation of any police-involved deaths. It meant that rather than Milwaukee Police or any other city’s police investigating one of their officers, there would have to be an outside agency doing the probe.

The law seems particular far-sighted in the case of Sylville Smith, the man killed by a Milwaukee officer, and whose slaying touched off a weekend of violence in the Sherman Park neighborhood. Any decision by Milwaukee officials regarding the officer’s conduct would have automatically been suspect. Instead the investigation is being overseen by the state Department of Criminal Justice, overseen by Attorney General Brad Schimel.

But questions have arisen about Schimel’s links to Milwaukee police. For starters, he has been a frequent recipient of campaign donations from the Milwaukee Police Association. The police union gave him five donations of $500 between May 2014 and October 2015, as Gretchen Schuldt has reported for Wisconsin Justice Initiative.

Then there’s the fact the state investigation is using retired Milwaukee police officers in the Smith probe. The AG told the media he doesn’t see a conflict in using MPD officers: “Milwaukee PD has about 2,000 sworn officers as I understand. The likelihood that there would be some relationship between a particular patrol officer, who’s going to be much younger than an experienced detective… is small. And if there is any relationship at all, that officer, that investigator would not be permitted to have any role in the investigation.”

This is not the first time former Milwaukee officers were used in such a state investigation. They were also used in the 2014 investigation of Milwaukee officer Christopher Manney who shot and killed Dontre Hamilton in Red Arrow Park.

At the time, Bies told Fox 6 he trusted the state agents to be impartial, but thought their ties to the Milwaukee department could make the public suspicious: “I would’ve thought that whoever made those assignments maybe would’ve considered those issues and… made a better decision and put a different investigator on.”

In short, perception matters. As it turned out, many in Milwaukee have never accepted the decision that determined Manney wasn’t criminally culpable and there have been periodic protests since then. But the stakes are far higher in the Smith killing, which touched off a near-riot. Whatever the decision that’s made, it’s critical that it looks as fair as possible, with no perception of favorable treatment.

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, while stressing that the body camera video suggested the shooting of Smith “certainly appeared to be within lawful bounds,” added this caveat: “I’m looking at a silent movie that doesn’t necessarily tell me everything that will come out in a thorough investigation. You know the fog of war.” More than likely the video is not clear cut and open to interpretation.

Add to this that Dominique Heaggan, the officer who shot Smith, knew him since they were teens. Heaggan was also accused of using excessive force two days before the shooting. Rumors are flying in Smith’s neighborhood that his past relationship with Heaggan may have been a factor in the killing. That doesn’t mean there’s any truth to such claims, but it does underline the importance of rendering a judgement that looks truly impartial.

Noting this, Taylor has released a statement saying that, “As one of the authors of the officer-involved shooting legislation that requires outside, independent investigators, I can tell you that allowing former Milwaukee police officers to investigate their former department circumvents the true intention of the bill. This is something that has been recognized as problematic for some time, and I have had several meetings with the DOJ to urge them to adopt conflict of interest policies to prevent this situation because it creates an appearance of bias. They have refused to do so.”

The reaction from Schimel’s office was astonishing. His arrogant spokesperson Johnny Koremenos launched into an ad hominem attack on Taylor: “It should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with Rep. Taylor’s background — an attorney with no experience in the courtroom, either as a prosecutor or criminal defense attorney, and zero experience in any law enforcement capacity — would come up with this meritless idea. To imply that deeply experienced DCI agents are unable to carry out a thorough and thoughtful investigation on behalf of the Wisconsin Department of Justice in the search for truth is insulting to all those who wear a badge. Furthermore, one can only deduce that by making such a proposal, Rep. Taylor intends to sow doubt in the public’s mind that law enforcement officers in this state lack the integrity and character our citizens have come to expect.”

Actually, what Taylor was suggesting was exactly what her Republican co-sponsor and former deputy sheriff Bies had suggested about the Dontre Hamilton investigation.

For that matter, Gov. Scott Walker has bragged about signing the Taylor-Bies law and emphasized the need for independent investigations: “I’m proud to say I’m the only governor in America… who signed a law that says there needs to be an independent investigation any time there’s a death of someone in police custody,” he told the national media while running for president.

But how “independent” does the investigation look when you have Milwaukee officers investigating a fellow member of the force? Under the circumstances, you have have to ask why Schimel hasn’t simply looked for other retired officers — whether from the Madison, Racine or any other city — to conduct the Smith probe.

Going further, he should address the issue of the campaign donations. “It’s a clear conflict of interest for Schimel to be involved in this investigation,” Schuldt has argued. “There is a lot of distrust in the community of law enforcement. For Schimel to take police union money and then investigate the police will clearly only add to that distrust. He needs to give the money back or step down from the investigation.”

When Schimel announces the results of his investigation from his office 75 miles away in Madison, any reaction in Milwaukee will be the concern of Flynn, Mayor Tom Barrett and other officials who must weather the potential storm. I hope I’m wrong, but Schimel’s arrogance, his refusal to recognize the importance of conducting an investigation that looks impartial, could end up being destructive to this city.

24 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Sylville Smith Probe Looks Suspicious”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    I had the same response to Schimel’s spokesperson’s response to Taylor’s comments. Her comments didn’t strike me as that outlandish, but the response from Koremenos was like something you’d see a campaign say in response to an opponent’s negative ad.

    When a state or a police department establishes an independent agency to investigate officer-involved shootings, who typically staffs them? Are there best practices and if so what are they?

  2. Sam says:

    It strikes me as amateurish on Schimel’s office to disregard the optics that surround it’s decision making as to this investigation. I wouldn’t call it stacking the deck as to outcomes necessarily, just kinda tone deaf.

    There have to be investigators with no ties to the MPD to choose from right? What benefit, to the process, would there be to have the current investigators and not someone without that history? In what ways can Schimel put the communities legitimate mistrust at ease? How does he keep himself out of this?

    I understand Sen. Taylor’s comments, but where is Sen. Harris-Dodd’s take on this? It’s her district. What about State Rep. LaTonya Johnson, the presumptive next in line?

  3. blurondo says:

    Johnny Koremenos is a Tea Party bigot typical of the people who are in charge of the government in Wisconsin.

  4. Vincent Hanna says:

    Is that true blurondo? I think Schimel has been just a terrible AG.

  5. Dominique Paul Noth says:

    Bruce I absolutely believe that one reason for you skepticism and the community’s is Schimel’s arrogance and the clearly political games he has played in the past.

  6. Bill Sweeney says:

    I have some questions. How big is the investigative team of the Division of Criminal Investigations (DCI), how many members make up the team? How many are ex Milwaukee police officers? How many are former police officers from other cities? If there are members who have never been police officers, what is their professional experience? What is the racial and gender composition of the investigative unit of DCI?

    Given the history of police misconduct in the Milwaukee Police Department, it would seem imperative to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. I can imagine that any police officer, whether from Milwaukee or elsewhere, would experience the notion ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ when examining the conduct of a fellow police officer. Given that, I would hope that the investigative team of DCI would be made up a wide cross section of people from different backgrounds and experiences who have a known record for integrity.

  7. Vincent Hanna says:

    Great questions Bill. I am wondering the same. The public should know, has a right to know.

  8. Virginia says:

    Good reporting and analysis. It’s appropriate that Taylor, a legislator who co-wrote the bill in question, should speak to whether the investigation is honoring the intent of that law.

    But I agree with Sam that legislators from the district should also weigh in, esp. state legislators.

  9. Paula Penebaker says:

    First, this is a thoughtful piece. Thank you! Second, Bill Sweeney asked great questions. I share his hope. Third, the results of the “investigation” will–no doubt–be met with skepticism because it is taking too long. Fourth, the tape, with all its limitations, should have been released by now. If it is as the police chief described, I trust that people have the capacity to reach a conclusion that the situation was one of “kill or be killed.” The wildcard in this this is the question of whether or not the police officer involved had a nefarious relationship with the victim.

  10. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Great article Bruce. The AG’s office has degenerated into a partisan chop shop under Schimel. So why should we be surprised by this act? Schimel earned the GOP nomination for the by letting Scott Jensen walk free in Waukesha County, and just used Jim Crow “states’ rights” language to defend WisGOP’s voter suppression.

    With that in mind, this covering up of the tape and refusal to get rid of the conflicts of interest are par for the course for this hack. They’re just looking for a way to not charge without the whole thing blowing up into a scandal.

    And the comments by Koremenos are disgusting and tellingly defensive. These guys clearly fear the prospect of Chris Taylor running against Criminal Schimel for AG in 2018. And they should, because she’d destroy him.

  11. M.Z. says:

    I believe the objection was adequately addressed by Schimel. You simply aren’t going to find seasoned investigators in SE Wisconsin by excluding those with experience in Milwaukee. He is I believe correct that seasoned investigators would be unlikely to have relationships with low level Milwaukee police.

  12. Jake currently of the MKE says:

    I think Schimel has proving he’s more of an ideological hack and crony than a true professional, which he told everybody he would be in the election. He should never be trusted to do his job objectively because he’s trying to bend it to his narrow political and ideological worldview.

  13. Vincent Hanna says:

    You believe he’s correct? Wonderful. I believe he isn’t. You don’t think former MPD officers would have inherent bias in favor of other MPD officers? No possible conflict there? Not to mention the public trust. It’s important for the community to believe an investigation will be completely objective and fair and comprehensive. They aren’t going to feel that way when former MPD officers are investigating this, and they absolutely should be leery.

  14. Dominique Paul Noth says:

    No one can say voters weren’t warned about his tendency to Republican hackery during the election.
    I fear some voted for him because of that.

  15. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Typical dingy Left wing dopey ideas. Even thought they have no idea what is happening, the camera will show the issue clearly, It is clear the guy had gun, would not drop it, could kill the cop in seconds, what is the question. Whether he was turning around or walking with it he did not obey orders. The 20 ft rule is in effect.
    The cop has right to protect himself whether the guy points it at him or does not drop it. Who ever makes first move has split second drop on guy.Any of you ever play cops and robbers or the draw games?
    Thousands of articles and training has shown this for decades. Best idea, do not carry a gun out in the open when fleeing from cops. Follow the orders of police or we have lots more dead cops which many liberals seem to want.Then the inner city would explode if cops let everyone shoot each other.

  16. Dominique Paul Noth says:

    I think Wisconsin Conservative in its haste to throw invective misunderstands the story and the thread. It could indeed turn out that the officer acted of necessity and that Schimel is only taking the appropriate time to investigate. But it’s clear to me that his past behavior throws all that in doubt. He has made errors in the past that can only be described as leaning backwards to protect his base.

  17. Vincent Hanna says:

    Yes clearly WCD does misunderstand. Not the first time. And liberals want dead cops? Seriously piss off WCD. You are repulsive.

  18. Jake currently of the MKE says:

    So how does WCD clearly know. Has he seen the video? This article is more about Schimel and the conflict of interest of the investigation with ex MPD cops. Not about the innocent or guilt of both the cop by using homicide. Was it justified? We don’t have enough information, obviously WCD feels it okay for cops to kill who they want and when they want, as long as it’s not a white person in the burbs of course, then WCD would want full disclosure, considering his entire ideological bent is based on white supremisicm.

  19. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Dom- I think Schimel’s partisan hackery was evident to those whi cared to look. But that’s a very small portion of the electorate, qnd the Dems and Suzanne Happ failed to bring it up. So in an election where the money and mouth-breathers favored Reoublicans, Schimel slipped by.

    Oh, and nice to see Dumb Dohnal drop in with his racist no-fact garbage. I assume Ron Johnson, Schimel’s buddy Adam Neylon, and the righties’ School Superintendent candidate are cool with it, since they’re dropping by your suburban home today?

    http://wispolitics.com/mobile.iml?Article=376696

  20. Vincent Hanna says:

    “Jean Donhal and all the hard working women serve great food.” Party like it’s 1960 WCD! The women know their place, serving the men folk food.

  21. M.Z. says:

    Vincent,

    I believe the likelihood of bias is greater is the Wauwatosa shooting that MPD is investigating.

  22. MilwTakeOver says:

    Sylville Smith is now in the landscaping business for one reason ONLY. You never present a weapon when a Police officer says, “put it down.” Every jury in the nation will within reason view this as justifiable homocide. If Smith made any motion to bring that 23 round semi-automatic weapon around towards that officer it is justifiable. Don’t parents teach their kids that anymore? Sylville (Civil… Oxymoron???) attempted cop killer should have that written in his tombstone.

  23. Vincent Hanna says:

    MPD and not the DOJ is investigating the Tosa shooting?

  24. Janet Neumann says:

    Johnny Koremenos: “It should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with Rep. Taylor’s background — an attorney with no experience in the courtroom, either as a prosecutor or criminal defense attorney, and zero experience in any law enforcement capacity — would come up with this meritless idea.” This is demonstrably false & one wonders why he would not at least look at her background. She was indeed in a courtroom & worked 2 years as a public defender, a fact that should be readily known to someone in the AG’s office. Begs the question as to whether he lied or has deficiencies.

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