Sylville Smith, or a Brief History of Death by a Thousand Law Enforcement Cuts

Picture of Sylville Smith

The things that I know about Sylville Smith are limited to a few, scattered reports upon his death at the hands of police on August 13th, 2016. I was following closely because of my own experiences in the city where he was killed, Milwaukee (where I had lived for nearly a decade), and the information I was receiving from my connections there as protests erupted almost immediately upon his death that afternoon. From that limited information, I got the sense that this circumstance was unique, for a number of reasons: 1) the protests that emerged were immediate and almost on-site, 2) people who knew him noted that he was “respected” in the community, and 3) almost immediately, the Milwaukee Police Department called attention to his “lengthy police record”.

The first and second points are not to be taken lightly in this context; Milwaukee has experienced a number of police shootings and assaults, but the quickness that these details emerged spoke volumes about Smith and his killing in particular. As the police and mayor’s office began to shape the narrative, in cooperation with the media, the expected third point above made it clear to everyone that it would not matter whether charges were brought, Sylville Smith would have somehow deserved his death. Massed rebellions in the city swelled in the ensuing days, and some opportunists and provocateurs burned some businesses that had been involved in previous conflicts with the African American communities. I took an interest in Smith’s “lengthy” record, and in researching his history in the years leading up to his death I found a template for the ways in which a young man with problems and pressures can be dogged to death by law enforcement.

Some more context for Milwaukee: it has been a crucible for its African American communities, comprising 40 percent of its population and experiencing astronomically high unemployment (50%). It is frequently referred to as the most-segregated city in the United States; one look at its racial composition via the University of Virginia’s Racial Dot Map reveals what appears to be a Piet Mondrian painting:

Map of Milwaukee and surrounding areas, showing distinct racial segregation with heavy concentrations of African Americans in the northwest, Latinos in the south, and whites along the eastern Lake Michigan coast.

Young African American boys and men have been particularly targeted, in recent decades by the Milwaukee Police Department’s own brand of “broken windows” or “stop-and-frisk” policing, often focused on pulling over Black motorists for “suspicious activity”. It was upon the premise of suspicious activity that Smith and another African American man were being pulled over that day in August.

Sylville Smith himself, as described by his grandfather (a description echoed by others that knew him) was “kind” and had “a beautiful personality”, was a skilled hip hop dancer who had taken gymnastics training, but also struggled with “comprehension and understanding” when it came to school — to the degree that he needed to take special education courses. A former teacher recalled that he worked incredibly hard to try to overcome his difficulties, especially with reading, including staying after school in part because his home life was difficult (his mother battled with addiction, and his father was imprisoned). His godmother called him a “soft soul” who loved animals and wanted to become a veterinarian. She also noted that he had a lot of female admirers.

Smith had been the victim of shootings in the past, which led him to begin carrying a weapon on his person. The same teacher from above said that he had regretted “gang stuff he couldn’t get out of” but, as a new father he was trying to build his life apart from it…or as his grandfather noted, just “trying to survive”. Among various side hustles, Smith also received checks for his disability as he tried to piece together a life.

I can only speculate on what the gang-related problems were, except to say that, when you are in your early 20s trying to build a life, struggling with cognitive disability and few qualifications, and are African American living where he was in Milwaukee, there are few options that will not pin you in place — inside or outside. Given the circumstances, he sounds popular, pragmatic, and pressing for something different.

So what about this “lengthy” record? What is incredible is how unjustly this record was reported. Many of the serious accusations and charges were dismissed or recanted; he had no felony on his record. He had a misdemeanor for a concealed weapon, by which point in time he was carrying to protect himself in an area of the city where he had gang history. Milwaukee had 145 homicides in 2015, and in 2016 had the 10th highest homicide rate in the country. Police were not, and are not, viewed as protectors from this in the African American communities, and so Smith obtained a concealed-carry permit. The gun was stolen from somewhere, by persons unknown, and likely Smith had purchased it on the black market because of limited funds. Media at the time chose to emphasize that it was stolen, had 23 rounds in it, and was stolen along with 500 rounds of ammunition…details only relevant if you want to lead readers to the assumption that Smith was the one who stole it, had intended to use those 23 rounds, and had already used the previous 477 rounds.

With a lack of serious charges, that means his actual record is almost entirely comprised of detainment under Chief Edward Flynn and MPD’s version of stop-and-frisk policies. And it looks like this:

Notice how nearly all the detainments are occurring in the African American neighborhoods, as reflected in the map of racial composition I shared above. Notice how frequently Smith was forfeiting money, over $2,700 in four years. And about that frequency: he was detained 15 times in just four years. They are almost all petty traffic violations, of which we have no information the circumstances (though a Milwaukeean would likely say it was for “driving while Black”). Here they are in table format:

In the early detainments, he was getting hit for suspended license, until eventually he was getting jailed for it. Things like insurance (cost) and driving (necessary with the kind of public transit available in Milwaukee) co-conspired to make it even more difficult for Smith to avoid charges and fines every time he was getting pulled over. There’s a downward spiral as he is increasingly serving short stints in jail; it’s important to note in fewer than half of these detainments was his detainment itself the result of an applied violation — emblematic of the MPD stop-and-frisk-like approach. Maybe he couldn’t “get out of” his gang history, but it seems like he couldn’t get out of law enforcement, either. How do you build a life with that? Where do you go?

Again, keep in mind, that record above is his “lengthy record,” an important part of a narrative in which you are supposed to believe in Sylville Smith as a criminal element, destined for an early end. I think there is a much more important history here that suggests that, rather than an exceptional case, Smith’s life brings together his unique situation with a common context whose results can and will bring disaster in discriminate ways.

And it brings us to those final moments in Smith’s life, the body camera footage which I will not link here. If you wish to find it, you can. The only thing I will say with regards to description is that Smith runs from the car, perhaps knowing the stolen weapon will give him a felony, and in less than five seconds he is caught in front of a fence in somebody’s side-yard. He attempts to throw the gun to his left into tall grass, or perhaps over the fence, and an officer shoots him in the leg. A quick second shot, after an unarmed Smith has dropped the gun, hits him in the chest and kills him. It happens so fast, you forget it was the culmination of five years of dogged pursuit.


I decided not to include much on the officer, Dominique Heaggan-Brown, including the fact that he attended high school with Smith, because I think the incident in question happened far too fast for it to contribute to any sort of deliberate intent on the part of Heaggan-Brown. I likewise do not think the fact that Heaggan-Brown was removed from the force for other violations, or was acquitted of charges involving Smith, has much to do with him ultimately killing Smith. On the other hand, I do not have information on who the officers were in the detainment of Smith, or whether Smith was frequently seen in or driving a similar car — both details which could contribute to a larger narrative of whether or not Smith was targeted above and beyond the general targeting of African Americans in Milwaukee by the MPD. I think there might be much more story here to pursue, but I might not be the one who would (or should) pursue it.