Milwaukee police confrontations with two men — one Black, one white — ended quite differently, an outcome that raises the question “what if their races were reversed?”

The encounters unfolded over the span of 15 months and in the same city block, the Associated Press reported. One of the men was in fact unarmed, while the other flashed a semi-automatic weapon. Only one was shot by police, however.

Smith and Baker
Jerry Smith Jr. (left) and Brandon Baker were both confronted by police, but only one of them was shot. (Photos by Ivan Moreno / Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office)

Police body cam video captured 19-year-old Jerry Smith Jr., writhing in pain on a rooftop after an August 2017 police encounter that left him partially paralyzed. The video, released in late November, showed Smith, who is Black, with his arms and fingers spread wide as four Milwaukee officers corner him on a rooftop, a pursuit sparked by a false report of a man with a gun.

That afternoon, Smith and a friend had gotten into a fight with several other young men in the neighborhood, some of whom were reportedly armed with brass knuckles and a knife. When patrol officers arrived to assess the scene, Smith fled, sparking a chase.

He “doesn’t have a gun in his hand, but he was hiding behind an AC unit,” one of the cops remarked in the video.

Just as the young man begins to get on the ground, officers fire at least three shots at close range, sending Smith toppling to the ground.

The incident lasted all of 10 seconds. No gun was ever found.

Fast-forward to this past November when Milwaukee officers engaged in a tense standoff with Brandon Baker. Police said the 20-year-old man had just climbed to the rooftop of his apartment building and fired several shots, frightening his neighbors.

Two officers encountered Baker at the entrance of the building just after 5 a.m. According to AP, “He refused to drop the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle he was holding. He admitted that he had fired the shots earlier, and said he posted a video of it on Twitter. He told officers he was running for governor, that he was going to the polls to ‘air it out,’ that he was going to start a militia. He had a right to bear arms, he said.”

As he talked to police, other officers approached from behind and tackled the white man from behind.

“I’m not moving, don’t shoot me!” Baker shouts in the video obtained by local station WISN-TV.

Not a single shot was fired during the scuffle.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who declined to comment on Smith’s shooting because of pending litigation, warned against comparing the two men’s incidents.

“Comparing two separate incidents is inevitably problematic because circumstances police officers face and observations they make are different in every situation,” he told AP.

Alderman Khalif Rainey, who’s Black, was bothered by the different outcomes and said he no longer believes he’s immune from a situation like Smith’s.

“It’s real serious. At one point in time I thought, ‘Not me,’” Rainey said. “But now it’s like, something goes wrong, you make the wrong move, you make the wrong gesture … and now I’m shot. Now I’m paralyzed. Now I’m dead.”

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