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AG: Ex-Milwaukee officers investigating fatal police shooting of Sylville Smith

MILWAUKEE -- Wisconsin’s attorney general acknowledged Monday that former Milwaukee police officers, now working for the state Department of Justice, are investigating the fatal shooting of a black man by aMilwaukee officer that triggered two nights of violence.

Attorney General Brad Schimel said he doesn’t see a conflict in using former Milwaukee officers in the investigation into the Aug. 13 shooting of Sylville K. Smith​.

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Smith, 23, was killed after what Milwaukee police said was a brief foot chase when he ran from a traffic stop. A few hours after Smith’s death, a protest on the city’s largely black north side erupted into violence that reignited the following night in the Sherman Park neighborhood.

“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,” Schimel said at a news conference in downtown Milwaukee.

He said the DOJ hires many retired officers to work for the Division of Criminal Investigation in the region that they have previously worked. An agency spokesman later said DCI has about 100 officers statewide; of 18 field agents in the Milwaukee office, eight once worked for the Milwaukee Police Department.

State Rep. David Bowen, who grew up in the Sherman Park neighborhood, questioned the use of former Milwaukee officers in the investigation and called for Schimel to turn the case over to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“People are crying out for transparency and crying out for accountability,” said Bowen, who represents a large portion of the city’s north side.

Schimel said his investigators have interviewed all “critical witnesses” at least once, but the investigation into the fatal shooting of Smith is not yet complete. His office has been working closely with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who ultimately will decide whether any charges are warranted against the officer who shot Smith, he said.

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The attorney general said there are two videos from body cameras worn by two of the three officers who were at the scene of the shooting that show similar vantage points, but that no video or still shots from the video will be released until Chisholm is done with the case. There is no surveillance video from the neighborhood, he said.

While the video is a component of the investigation, Schimel said it’s just one piece among many sources of information.

“They give only a narrow and incomplete glimpse of the overall picture,” he said.

Schimel says the videos won’t be released until after the county prosecutor decides whether to charge the officer, whose name hasn’t been made public.  

The police officer has however allegedly been outed by those in the community who knew him, and has been targeted by online threats​. Widely shared social media posts and at least one news report identified him as a 24-year-old patrolman -- matching the age and departmental experience that police released. Many posts contained threats against him and a photo.

The department said in a statement Tuesday it has noticed a “disturbing national trend” in which social media users have identified officers involved in fatal shootings and threatened them and their families. A spokesman declined to confirm the identity being circulated online.

The department said it is aware of some local threats against its officers and is investigating.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has pressed Schimel’s office to release the body camera video. Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said the video clearly shows Smith was holding a handgun and turned toward the officer when he was shot.

The first 30 seconds of the video has no audio. That’s because Milwaukee police body cameras are set up to continuously record a 30-second buffer of video only. When an officer double-clicks his camera, the device instantly stores the past 30 seconds of video and begins adding audio only at that instant.

Schimel said it happened quickly.

“It’s not easy to see everything unless you slow it down” he said.

Smith’s family has been cooperative in the investigation, Schimel said. The Wisconsin Department of Justice is investigating the shooting, as required by state law for any fatal shootings involving police.

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