Milwaukee calm after riot over police shooting of black suspect

Owners of the BP gas station survey the damage after rioters clashed with the Milwaukee Police Department.
Owners of the BP gas station survey the damage after rioters clashed with the Milwaukee Police Department.PHOTO: AFP

MILWAUKEE (REUTERS) – An uneasy calm was holding on Sunday (Aug 14) evening in the Milwaukee neighbourhood where the fatal shooting of a suspect by a police officer touched off rioting and arson the previous night and prompted Wisconsin’s governor to activate the National Guard.

Police violence against African-Americans has set off intermittent, sometimes violent protests in the past two years, igniting a national debate over race and policing in the United States and giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took the precautionary step in case more violence broke out over the death of Sylville K. Smith, 23, who was shot while trying to flee from an officer who had stopped his car on Saturday.

Aiming to reassure the community that the police acted properly, Chief Edward Flynn said on Sunday he had viewed video from the officer’s body camera and it showed Smith had turned toward him with a gun in his hand after a traffic stop.

The Sherman Park neighbourhood, where a heated confrontation between residents and officers clad in riot gear turned violent overnight, was peaceful as the sun set.

About 200 people lit candles and gathered around the spot where Smith was shot. A few police officers looked on as faith and community leaders implored protesters to restrain their anger. “We are not ignorant and stupid people,” a pastor told the crowd, echoing a feeling among many of the city’s African-Americans that they are systemically mistreated. “Every single person needs to be looked upon as human beings and not like savages and animals.” 

The previous night, gunshots were fired, six businesses were destroyed by fire and police cars damaged before calm was restored in the area, which has a reputation for poverty and crime. Seventeen people were arrested, and four police officers were treated for injuries.

At a news conference with Mayor Tom Barrett, Flynn said the officer who fired the fatal shot was black and media reports also identified Smith as black.

He said a silent video of the incident appeared to show the officer acting within lawful bounds in shooting Smith. He said the officer stopped Smith’s vehicle because he was behaving suspiciously and then had to chase him several dozen feet on foot into an enclosed space between two houses.

He said the moment when the officer fired his weapon could not be determined because the audio was delayed. “I’m looking at a silent movie that doesn’t necessarily tell me everything that will come out in a thorough investigation,”Flynn said. “You know the fog of war. You know first reports are frequently wrong or slightly off. “I know what I saw. Based on what I saw, didn’t hear, don’t know what the autopsy results are going to be, he certainly appeared to be within lawful bounds,” Flynn said of the officer.

The mayor told the news conference that Smith did not drop the gun as ordered before he was shot.

Smith had a lengthy arrest record, Barrett said, and officials said earlier he was carrying a stolen handgun loaded with 23 rounds of ammunition when stopped for unspecified“suspicious activity.” 

On Sunday evening, several of Smith’s sisters addressed the crowd, saying their brother “did not deserve” to be shot. “My brother was no felon,” said one of them, Kimberly Neal, 24, as she wept. “My brother was running for his life. He was shot in his back.” 

Walker announced the National Guard activation after a request from Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who met Walker and Wisconsin National Guard Adjutant General Donald Dunbar. But Barrett said any decision to deploy the troops would come from the police chief.

VIOLENCE AND UNREST 

The National Guard, which is under the dual control of the federal and state governments, was deployed in Ferguson in August 2014 after several nights of rioting over the police killing of an unarmed black man.

This summer has brought deadly ambushes of police. Five officers were slain by a sniper in Dallas last month as they provided security at an otherwise peaceful protest of police killings. Three officers were killed by a gunman in Baton Rouge less than two weeks later.

Policing in Milwaukee has come under scrutiny since 2014 when Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill, unarmed black man, was fatally shot in a park by a white officer, an incident that sparked largely peaceful protests.