When police kill, should they be the ones responsible for investigating and judging themselves? This is the question Michael Bell has been asking officials in Wisconsin ever since his 21-year-old son, who was named after him, was fatally shot by Kenosha police in front of the son’s mother and sister in 2004.
It was largely Bell’s activism — a publicity campaign involving billboards, newspapers ads and his website — that led to the recent passage of a historic law that will overhaul police review policies. It is the first law of its kind in the nation.
The legislation, which Gov. Scott Walker recently signed into law, requires that deaths in police custody be investigated by an outside agency, using independently gathered evidence. Bell and about two dozen other family members of police victims attended the private signing ceremony.
“It was a very healing moment for our family,” Bell told Truthout.
Bell is a retired lieutenant colonel Air Force pilot and understands the nature of investigation, training and discipline in a profession that uses deadly force. He has pushed for criminal punishment officials to take the same approach to investigations of police-perpetrated shootings as is taken with investigations of military plane crashes, which typically require impartial experts to review the facts.
Though his efforts have now been successful in Wisconsin, Bell says that for a long time, he was vilified for questioning police officials. It took many years before any progress was made on the issue of independent investigations in deaths in police custody.
“I have a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy who was shot in the head while his hands were behind his back in handcuffs, being held down by another officer. There are five eyewitnesses and his father is a retired Air Force colonel, … and I [was] ignored and vilified. What must it be like for people aren’t in that privileged class?” Bell asked.
Wisconsin lawmakers drafted the legislation in response to three people’s deaths while in police custody in the last few years, including Bell’s son. The other deaths involved Derek Williams, who died struggling for air and begging for help in the back of a Milwaukee squad car in 2011, and Paul Heenan, who was fatally shot by a Madison officer during a confrontation in 2012.
The families of the men banded together publicly, petitioning the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI, questioning the validity of the internal police investigations that found no wrongdoing in their sons’ cases and resulted in no criminal charges.
Fifty-three people have died in police custody in Wisconsin between 2003 and 2009, and state police departments reported officers killed 41 people between June 2008 and April 2013, according to the Associated Press. All the reported killings were determined to be “justifiable.”
“We researched the state of Wisconsin, and we could not find an ‘unjustified’ ruling of a police-involved shooting in 129 years since the police and fire departments were first formed in 1885. We knew that was an impossible record of perfection. Either the police officers were perfect, or there was something wrong with the system,” Bell said.
Several smaller police departments in the state and many across the country already have an independent process for reviewing police-perpetrated shootings and deaths, but many larger departments, both in Wisconsin and nationally, have older review practices and often handle their own investigations. The new Wisconsin law is groundbreaking because it is the first statewide mandate of this external investigation process.
The new law is a significant victory for police accountability advocates. If other states follow Wisconsin’s lead, it could codify this external oversight process within other police departments around the country.
“I do think the bill will be a model for other states,” Bell said. He also said that if an opportunity arises in another state to pass a similar bill, he would be open to supporting the efforts to get it passed. Already, concerned citizens are reaching out to him for advice.
Similar legislation has been attempted in a few states such as Maine and Oregon but hasn’t been successful. The law in Wisconsin could provide a model policy that could attain bipartisan support elsewhere.
But some police unions are already objecting to the new law, saying police departments are “uniquely suited to investigate incidents.” They worry that, in addition to outside agencies’ investigations, federal authorities might investigate deaths in police custody, and lawsuits could be brought. It’s certainly not in the interest of the unions to hand over their control of internal investigations to outside agencies, as it has been important to the unions in the past to control the process. It’s these unions that could pose the biggest obstacle to the new mandate spreading to other states.
Many accountability experts agree that the practice of police officers in the same agency or department investigating their own colleagues when they are accused of a crime can lead to bias and cover-up. The new law provides a better accountability system for both officers and families who are grieving after the loss of a loved one.
“If you look at the photographs from that signing, you can see the expression on everybody’s face,” Bell said. “It was almost as if love triumphed over power.”