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Wis. first to require independent investigation of police-involved deaths

The new law requires a team of at least two investigators from an outside agency to lead reviews of deaths

By Gina Barton
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE — For nearly 10 years, Michael Bell has waged a campaign for greater accountability when police use lethal force.

He has spent more than $1 million on billboards, newspaper advertisements and a website, all of them asking some variation of this question: When police kill, should they judge themselves?

Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday answered with a resounding “no,” signing into law a bill that requires outside investigation when people die in police custody — the first of its kind in the nation. Bell, along with more than two dozen family members and supporters, attended the private signing ceremony in the governor’s office.

Bell carried a picture of his namesake son, who was 21 when Kenosha police fatally shot him in front of his mother, Kim, and sister, Shantae, in 2004.

“That was the catalyst that started everything,” Bell said of his son’s death. “I just think he knows that even though we couldn’t be there to have defended him that night, this is a big deal, and he knows that we’ve made a tremendous amount of sacrifices, because we just loved the kid.”

The officers who killed Bell were quickly cleared of wrongdoing after an internal investigation by officers within their own department.

Similar scenarios played out in 2011, following the death of Derek Williams, who died after struggling for breath and begging for help in the back of a Milwaukee police car; and last year, when a Madison police officer shot and killed Paul Heenan outside his home. All three men were unarmed when they died.

Friends and supporters of Williams and Heenan also were on hand when Walker signed the bill.

State Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) agreed to co-sponsor the bill after being approached by Bell. Bies, a former Door County sheriff’s deputy, said he was troubled by the three deaths and their aftermaths.

“I just saw a strong need to have some openness and some credibility, to assure the public that police are there to protect and serve and be upfront and honest with them,” Bies said. “I believe the majority of police are, but when these things come up, it leaves a real question in your mind of what took place.”

The new law requires a team of at least two investigators from an outside agency to lead reviews of such deaths.

It requires reports of custody death investigations throughout the state to be publicly released if criminal charges are not filed against the officers involved. Officers also must inform victims’ families of their options to pursue additional reviews via the U.S. attorney’s office or a state-level John Doe investigation.

The new mandates do not apply to deaths in county jails and state prisons, which already are investigated by the state Department of Corrections.

Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) co-sponsored the bill, which will take effect in about 10 days.

“I think it’s going to be very beneficial for the public to know that it’s not going to be colleagues investigating colleagues when these horrible incidents occur, that is has to be somebody else from outside the department,” she said. “That’s a huge change from what was happening in the big police departments.”

She is optimistic that Wisconsin’s success in reforming the process will inspire other states to make similar changes.

“I think this hopefully will embolden other states that it can be done on a bipartisan basis with support from law enforcement and from the community,” Taylor said. “I’m proud that Wisconsin is the first state in the nation to have this outside investigatory process. It’s kind of unbelievable.”

Bies and Taylor credited the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, along with other media, with informing the public about the issue and keeping people up-to-date on the bill’s progress.

“Without stories like the ones that you did, I don’t know if this bill would have passed,” Taylor told the Journal Sentinel.

The Journal Sentinel first reported on the Bell family’s activism in 2005. The newspaper’s coverage of Williams’ death resulted in the medical examiner reclassifying it from natural to homicide in 2012.

An investigation of in-custody deaths in Milwaukee County over a five-year period that was published in February found that while those reviews are labeled as “independent,” pathologists, prosecutors and law enforcement officials rely on one another’s conclusions — even when those conclusions are flawed — ensuring no one is held accountable when prisoners die.

Bell’s family settled a federal civil rights suit with the City of Kenosha and its police department for $1.75 million. Many civil settlements include a confidentiality agreement, which precludes families from discussing the case.

The elder Bell refused to sign off on such a provision because he wanted to be able to discuss his son’s death as he lobbied for change.

Bell’s wife of 21 years and Michael’s stepmother, Susan Bell, called the passage of the bill “a miracle.”

“It’s been a long road,” she said. “It’s not going to help our family, but for any other families out there, hopefully this will help prevent something like this happening again. And if it does happen, some type of justice will be served.”

She hopes the end of the fight will lift a cloud from the lives of their three sons, now 15, 17 and 20, whose childhoods have been shadowed by their half brother’s death.

“The whole process has taught them that it’s possible to go out there and accomplish something that’s never been done before and to not give up,” she said. “I’m sure as they grow up and become adults they’ll realize the sacrifice is worth it.”

Her husband, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and pilot, compared the law’s passage to coming home from Operation Desert Storm.

“I remember taxiing my airplane down the ramp at O’Hare, and my family was there, and I knew that whole incident was over,” he said. “I had returned safe and sound, and I was proud of myself and what I had accomplished. That’s the closest thing to what this is like. That massive weight of responsibility is off my shoulders and I’ve made it back safe and sound.”

Copyright 2014 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel