Sylville Smith Probe Looks Suspicious
AG Brad Schimel’s links to Milwaukee Police raise questions about his investigation.
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.”
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.