Police Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown seemed the embodiment of social progress as he rode with his partner through the simmering North Side of Milwaukee early Saturday afternoon.
Heaggan-Brown is a 24-year-old African American who grew up in that very neighborhood and rapped under the name KB Domo before joining the Milwaukee police department three years ago. His grammar school buddies had included the local rising star Dae Flywalker, who had gone into rap at Heaggan-Brown’s urging. Flywalker had acknowledged the debt last year by inviting Heaggan-Brown to join him in making a video for his first big project, #DIVOMDS.
“He’s the one who got me rapping in the first place,” Flywalker later told a reporter. “It was only right that he be featured seeing that he was the one who introduced me to all of this and had retired from pursuing music himself in favor of his new career.”
For a few hours at Trio Records Studio in downtown Milwaukee, Heaggan-Brown again became KB Domo, rapping in a blue and gold floppy hat about the tribulations of growing up black in a city of struggling schools and stunted futures and cops who too often seemed more like enemies than protectors.
“I’mma start a riot like it’s Baltimore,” he rapped.
Then Heaggan-Brown returned to his new career as a rapper turned copper, a hip-hop cop, seemingly just the person to convince the people of the neighborhood that the police are in fact protectors and not enemies. He had been on the job for just six months on the bitterly cold February night in 2014 when he and another cop brought a homeless woman into the warmth of the Copper Kettle diner. The cops handed a waitress $20, telling her to give the woman whatever she wanted and to let her stay until closing at 9 p.m. The cops returned at that hour and took the woman to a shelter.
Heaggan-Brown did have some unspecified difficulties that caused the department to place him on limited duty in the midst of his 16-month probationary period, but he was reinstated after 97 days. At least one citizen would later grumble that Heaggan-Brown was “too eager” as he patrolled streets where he now sought to bring reason if no longer rhyme. He does not appear to have received any official complaints.
A supervisor, Capt. Shunta Boston-Smith, did her part by taking what were called “goodwill walks” and paused last April to jump rope with a 9-year-old named Za’layia Jenkins. The youngster asked a question that was only reasonable in a city where 15 children had been shot in the previous two years.
“Will you keep me safe?”
On May 5, Za’layia became the 16th shot child when she was struck by a stray bullet as she sat in a house while visiting family. The doctors fought to save her, but she was pronounced brain dead on May 16, one day before her 10th birthday.
“This little girl slipped the bonds of earth and touched the face of God,” Capt. Aaron Raap was moved to say.
The violence continued, claiming grown-ups as well as children. Five adults were shot to death in nine hours leading from last Friday night into Saturday morning. The police department would later note to the Milwaukee Sentinel that three of those killings were in the immediate area of where Heaggan-Brown and his partner were patrolling on Saturday afternoon.
“As everyone knows, this was a very, very violent 24 hours in the city of Milwaukee,” Assistant Police Chief Jessup later said. “Our officers are out here taking risks on behalf of the community and making split-second decisions.”
Around 3:30 p.m., Heaggan-Brown and his partner pulled over a car after seeing what the police department would describe as “suspicious activity.” The two occupants scattered, and Heaggan-Brown chased after 23-year-old Sylville Smith. The cop and Smith are said to have known each other in their days at Casimir Pulaski High School.
The department would subsequently report that Heaggan-Brown was wearing a body camera and that the footage shows that Smith turned toward the cop with a handgun in his right hand.
But Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn reported that the footage does not establish precisely when Heaggan-Brown fired.
“I can’t tell when the officer discharges his firearm because with many body-worn cameras, certainly all of ours, there’s a 30-second delay before the audio kicks on,” Flynn told the press on Sunday. “I don’t know when the shots were fired.”
The manual for the Axon Flex cameras that the Milwaukee Police Department employs in fact reports that “both video and audio will be recorded” the moment the camera is fully activated.
But Heaggan-Brown may not have switched his camera from the STANDBY mode to the EVENT mode until the instants immediately after the shooting. The STANDBY mode includes a “pre-event” feature that perpetually captures the 30 seconds prior to full activation and then automatically adds it to the recording in EVENT mode.
In Saturday’s shooting, these pre-activation 30 seconds were apparently enough to capture the entire incident, but there is a hitch: The buffer only records video, not audio.
As a result—in what can been seen as either a delay in the device or a delay in the cop—the body cam not only failed to record the shots, but it also cannot confirm a report that Heaggan-Brown ordered Smith to drop the gun before firing.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett saw only a still from the silent video, but he seemed more than convinced that Heaggan-Brown had acted properly.
“There were 23 rounds in that gun that that officer was staring at. I want to make sure we don’t lose any police officers in this community, either,” Barrett later told the press.
As word of the shooting spread, the North Side of Milwaukee erupted in a riot very much like it was Baltimore for three nights. Gov. Scott Walker activated the National Guard.
The police reported that the gun had been stolen along with 500 rounds of ammunition during a burglary in June. Smith’s family said he had recently obtained a concealed carry license and that he felt in need of a gun because he had been shot twice and robbed four times, once stripped of all his clothing.
Whether Smith had such a permit could not be immediately confirmed, though he seems to have been eligible for one, as he had never been convicted of a felony. Smith had been arrested in connection with a shooting and then charged with witness tampering related to that shooting, but all charges had been dropped when the victim said he was no longer sure who had shot him. Smith’s family noted that his only conviction was a misdemeanor weapons charge and added that he had a 2-year-old son.
A young man identified as Smith’s brother angrily showed a TV news crew what he said was the concealed carry license. The brother offered a twist on the usual discussion of gun rights.
“You give us the right to carry a gun,” he said. “We got the same rights as y’all do, the right to bear arms. Where [are] our constitutional rights then?”
There remained the issue of Smith fleeing the traffic stop. He almost certainly would not have been shot if he had not bolted. A pistol loaded with 23 rounds necessarily had an extended magazine such as is presently fashionable in the street. Smith may have been holding the gun because the extended magazine would have made it difficult if not impossible to run with it in his waistband. But that would have made the gun appear no less a deadly threat to a pursuing officer.
As required by state law, the investigation has been turned over to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which has promised transparency within the constraints of its duties, but declines to suggest when it might authorize the release of the body cam footage that presumably shows the silent video of the shooting from Heaggan-Brown’s point of view.
If the footage is as exonerating as the police department and the mayor have indicated, the former rapper who once sought fame and fortune with hours of mix tapes will no doubt wish for just 30 seconds of audio that could have established exactly what happened in that critical moment that sparked a riot like Baltimore.
In the meantime, Heaggan-Brown got a lesson in what it can mean to be a copper when people who passed judgment without the facts posted his home address online and called for vengeance.
A photo of him in uniform standing by a patrol car had originally been posted at the time of his good deed.
“Now y’all see his face if he’s seen anywhere in the city drop him,” read one post.
No tape which KB Domo ever dropped with dreams of future glory could have been as urgently anticipated as the silent 30 seconds that Officer Heaggan-Brown’s body cam preserved from the immediate past when the cop who seemed the embodiment of social progress double-clicked EVENT.