MILWAUKEE (CN) – The family of Sylville Smith filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against former Milwaukee police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown, the same day the ex-cop was found not guilty of homicide for fatally shooting Smith last year.
“Sylville Smith—a loving 23 year-old father, son, brother, and friend— should be alive today, raising his three-year-old son. Instead, Sylville Smith’s life was tragically and unjustifiably taken through an act of homicide by former Milwaukee Police Department Officer Dominique L. Heaggan-Brown,” according to the complaint filed in Milwaukee federal court.
Heaggan-Brown was acquitted Wednesday of first-degree reckless homicide in the Aug. 13, 2016, killing of Smith, which ignited several days of protests in Milwaukee.
This verdict comes just days after the acquittal of the Minnesota police officer charged with manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile.
“Obviously, [Heaggan-Brown’s] very pleased. He believed all along that he was justified in what he did. It wasn’t a situation he asked to be put in,” said Jonathan Smith, Heaggan-Brown’s attorney, after Wednesday’s verdict.
Smith’s mother and father responded to the verdict by filing the federal lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee and Heaggan-Brown, alleging wrongful death, excessive force and due process violations.
Smith and an old friend were parked on Milwaukee’s north side on Aug. 13 when three officers, including Heaggan-Brown, boxed in Smith’s car with their Milwaukee Police Department SUVs.
According to the complaint, when Heaggan-Brown parked he immediately hopped out of his car with the intent to arrest Smith and his friend, despite lacking probable cause.
“Jumping out of the car in this manner was part of the City of Milwaukee’s ‘jump out boys’ practice and custom where MPD police officers would go to predominately African-American neighborhoods, would pull up next to people (whether on foot, on a bike, or in a car), detain them without probable cause—another unconstitutional practice—and often use excessive force along the way,” the lawsuit states. (Parentheses in original.)
Smith exited the car and began running. Heaggan-Brown drew his gun and began to chase him. Bodycam footage shows that Smith ran into a walkway and fell down near a chain link fence as he rounded the corner.
The black pistol Smith had been carrying dropped as he fell.
“Smith was obviously trying to disarm himself after he fell by attempting to throw the pistol over the fence,” according to the complaint.
Heaggan-Brown had partially holstered his weapon but grabbed it again and shot Smith in the bicep with a hollow-point bullet.
“Hollow-point bullets are designed to inflict damage on the people they hit and, though outlawed by the Geneva conventions, are used by the Milwaukee Police Department,” the lawsuit states.
After Smith was shot, he fell backwards on to the ground and into a fetal-like position due to the momentum of the fall, his family says.
“As Smith lay unarmed on the ground, curled halfway into a ball, with his hands near his head, defendant Heaggan-Brown fired a second shot into Smith’s chest,” the complaint alleges. “As he fired, defendant Heaggan-Brown was standing directly over Smith—an execution-style shooting of an unarmed civilian.”
The bullet perforated Smith’s heart and lung and caused his death, according to the lawsuit.
The family says that Smith posed no threat and that Heaggan-Brown was never in any danger that would justify the use of deadly force.
“Indeed, the killing of Sylville Smith via the second shot, as depicted in images of the shooting, shocks the conscience. It was unconscionable for defendant Heaggan-[Brown] to kill Sylville Smith by shooting him at point-blank range, standing above him, while Smith had already been shot and was completely unarmed,” according to the complaint.
Smith’s family claims that after the fatal shot was fired, Heaggan-Brown was stung by a bee and his first call for medical help was for himself, not Smith, who “was lying on the ground, suffering immense pain.”
Ninety seconds passed before the officer decided to help Smith but he quickly stopped when some blood got on his thumb, which he then wiped on Smith’s shirt, according to the lawsuit.
The family argues that Heaggan-Brown never should have been hired. Prior to being sworn in as an officer in 2013, Heaggan-Brown was pulled over for speeding twice, both incidents within two days of each other, in 2011, they say.
In 2012, his apartment was allegedly searched upon a shots fired call and although he was not there, police made three arrests and reported that the apartment smelled strongly of marijuana. As a result, the officer was counseled on avoiding associations that may jeopardize ones’ integrity, the complaint states.
During his 16-month standard probationary period as an officer in 2013, Heaggan-Brown was seen in uniform, in a YouTube video, entering an apartment that had a marijuana bong on the refrigerator, according to the lawsuit.
A year later, in 2014, Heaggan-Brown reported that his firearm was stolen from his closet. Upon investigation, the department allegedly discovered that he lived with a convicted felon, in direct violation of police policy.
“Heaggan-Brown’s lack of professional judgment and responsibility was obvious. The department, in making defendant Heaggan-Brown an officer deliberately ignored the obvious red flags present at the time he was made an officer,” the complaint states.
In 2015, according to the complaint, MPD found a photo of Heaggan-Brown posed with three men allegedly displaying gangs signs posted on the website of a suspected gang member but did not follow up.
The police department fired Heaggan-Brown two months after being charged with shooting Smith, but for an unrelated sexual assault case, Smith’s family claims.
The officer’s case was the first time since the 1970s that a Milwaukee police officer has been charged with homicide for an on-duty shooting. It was also the first time a Milwaukee County jury was sequestered in over 20 years, according to Fox 6.
“Though nothing can ever bring Sylville Smith back—and no form of redress can ever compensate his family members for their loss—this action seeks to hold accountable those responsible for the violation of constitutional and state-law rights of not only Sylville Smith, but others harmed by the defendants’ actions: Smith’s family, friends, and, in the end, all residents of the city of Milwaukee,” the family’s lawsuit states.
Smith’s family wants a judge to declare that Heaggan-Brown used excessive force in the wrongful death of Smith, to award the family compensatory and punitive damages, and to hold the city liable for the incident.
Anand Swaminathan of Loevy & Loevy in Chicago is representing the family.
A deputy district attorney for the city of Milwaukee declined to comment over the phone Thursday.
Heaggan-Brown’s attorney also declined to comment on the lawsuit.