By State Representative, Leon D. Young
In politics, as in most things, the appearance, or perception, surrounding a particular event greatly influences the opinion that people hold regarding a situation.
Under a state law that was enacted in 2014, Wisconsin became the first in the nation to mandate, on the legislative level, that if an officer was involved with a loss of life, that outside investigators must come in and collect the data and investigate that shooting.
The legislative intent of this legislation was clear: To remove the obvious appearance of police departments merely investigating themselves; and to reassure the public that these investigations would be transparent and police officers would be held accountable, when the evidence presented itself.
And, under this law, the Wisconsin Department of Justice has been given the responsibility of conducting all investigations of officer-involved deaths. With that being said, it was quite disturbing to hear the recent comments of Attorney Brad Schimel, the head of the Justice Department, who acknowledged that former Milwaukee police officer, who now work for the state Department of Justice, are investigating this month’s fatal shooting of a Black man by a Milwaukee officer.
More specifically, the attorney general said that he doesn’t see a conflict in using former Milwaukee officers in the investigation into the August 13 shooting of Sylville K. Smith.
If that was enough, AG Schimel indicated that there are two videos from body cameras worn by two of the three officers who were at the scene of the shooting of Smith that show similar vantage points, but no video or images from it will be released until Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm is done with the case.
Moreover, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn has said that the video clearly shows Smith was holding a handgun and turned toward the officer when he was shot. If that is fact the case, it’s imperative that the shooting video be released to the public with all deliberate haste meaning yesterday.
If the real intent of this new law is to promote greater accountability and transparency, in cases of officer-involved shootings, then the use of former Milwaukee police officers conducting the investigations and the reluctance to release video footage clearly flies in the face of its actual legislative intent. Lastly, most would agree that there is a fractured relationship between Milwaukee’s police and most communities of color in this city.
And, as we all know, effective community policing is heavily predicated on the public’s trust and cooperation with law enforcement.
However, the manner in which the Justice Department is conducting the Sylville Smith investigation sends the wrong message to the community and does little to repair the breach that currently exists.