Schimel: Law Enforcement Use Of Deadly Force Justified In Nearly All Cases

Wisconsin Began Independent Reviews Of Shootings In 2014

Andy Manis/ AP Photo

The use of deadly force by Wisconsin law enforcement is justified in the majority of cases, says Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel.

Former Milwaukee Police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown is the sole officer to face charges stemming from a fatal officer-involved shooting since the state began independent reviews of officer-involved shootings in 2014.

A jury acquitted Heaggan-Brown last year of first-degree reckless homicide in the shooting death of Sylville Smith. Smith’s death is one of 46 involving law enforcement that were investigated by agents with the state Division of Criminal Investigation through the end of last year, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

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Schimel said officers’ use of force is judged on whether they acted reasonably.

“You can be criticized in hindsight that the officer got it wrong, but that’s not the test for the officer. The test is whether or not they acted reasonably. That is the same self-defense test that is applied to any citizen if someone comes into your home and is attacking your family,” said Schimel. “If you believe that use of force is necessary to prevent harm to your family, you’re entitled to do it. It’s based on whether you’re reasonable, not whether in hindsight or in Monday morning quarterbacking you’re right.”

The state has investigated a total of 75 incidents since independent reviews began in 2014 through the end of 2017. Those incidents include officer-involved shootings, deaths, police pursuits and officers killed in the line of duty. The number of incidents reviewed by DCI agents each year has remained roughly flat for the last three years. However, the number of officer-involved deaths has increased slightly each year with 17 cases in 2017. The attorney general attributed the increase to more requests for outside review from local law enforcement, according to a DOJ spokesman.

The DOJ issued guidelines last year for conducting independent reviews of officer-involved shootings, which include a 30-day timeline for issuing final results of the investigation to a prosecutor.

“We’ve made a commitment at DOJ that we’re going to get these things done in 30 days,” said Schimel. “Sometimes they take a little bit longer, but when it does – if it’s going to take 40 days – I want an explanation for why and it better make sense.”

The guidelines also spell out how agents should conduct interviews with officers involved in shootings, recording of interviews and who is allowed to be present.

“There are things that sometimes, in the way that we conduct the investigation, that local law enforcement won’t like, but those things are designed to make sure that the public is confident in the outcome,” Schimel said. “We won’t let, in most circumstances, the supervisory staff sit in on our initial interviews with the officers who are involved because we don’t want to create the sense that there is a conflict.”

Overall, Schimel said the DOJ’s policy for addressing incidents is working well, and monitoring is ongoing to pinpoint any issues. The attorney general said there is no other type of case where it’s more important for the public to have confidence in the outcome of the investigation.

“We have to make sure that the public sees transparently what happened when the investigation’s done, but then that they look at it and feel that there wasn’t a cover up,” he said.