At first it seemed as though the situation on Aug. 13, 2016, would be defused. People had gathered in the Sherman Park neighborhood after a police-involved shooting had left a young man, Sylville Smith, 23, dead. But when police departed to attend to other areas of the city, tensions rose and boiled over into isolated acts of violence and gunshots fired into the air. Members of the crowd smashed squad cars and set fires, and the chaos spread across the neighborhood, with reporters being threatened and attacked. The unrest culminated in the burning down of a BP gas station that had been at the center of a controversial incident earlier that summer, when the owner shot a handgun into the air to remove congregating teenagers from the property. The station was one of eight total buildings to be set on fire that night.
In the year since, Sherman Park has been a quieter place, although violence remains a problem, such as the July shooting that injured two children and two adults. A new “Sherman Park Rising” mural is going to be painted in the neighborhood, designed to show the connections between its citizens, and revitalization efforts continue in the area, including city efforts to deal with vacant and foreclosed homes.
Focus over the past year has turned to the issues that led to those riots. Various articles, such as those by Reggie Jackson, head griot at America’s Black Holocaust Museum, have looked at the neighborhood and the events leading up to the riots. In one analysis, Jackson wrote, “Resolving these issues will take time, passion, energy, sympathy, empathy, and a tremendous amount of compassion and hard work.”
Local courts, however, are still processing what happened. In July, prosecutors filed arson and rioting charges against a Milwaukee resident in relation to the Sherman Park riot, and the Smith family has filed a lawsuit against the former officer who shot their son, Dominique Heaggan-Brown, saying Smith’s civil rights were violated. According to the lawsuit, Heaggan-Brown had a history of misconduct and was not adequately disciplined, leading to the eventual shooting of Smith.
Heaggan-Brown was dismissed from the police force after allegations surfaced of sexual assault that were unrelated to the shooting. That December, he was charged with first degree reckless homicide for the shooting, with the central legal question being whether the second shot was justified. The first shot, which hit Smith in the arm, was fired while Smith was holding a gun. The second, fired 1.69 seconds later, hit Smith in the chest, after he’d thrown the gun over a fence. The prosecution argued he was attempting to surrender, making the second shot unnecessary. The defense countered by saying that Heaggan-Brown still considered Smith a threat and believed he was reaching for another weapon.
In June, the trial came to a close, and Heaggan-Brown was found not guilty on all counts. He still faces the sexual assault charges, and a trial is slated to begin later this month.