Legislators in Wisconsin have passed what is likely the first statewide bill that requires police departments bring in investigators from outside their agencies when officer-involved deaths occur.
Wisconsin Assembly Bill 409 requires at least two outside investigators–one of whom will lead the effort– to look into such cases. Further, if district attorneys chose not to charge officers, the investigators must release their report into the death to the public. Affected families must also be told how to file complaints and pursue charges through a judge if they don’t agree with the district attorney’s decision.
A Wisconsin father, Michael Bell, lead the effort to have the bill passed. He became bent on changing police procedures after an officer killed his son.
“I’m actually hopeful that this law could represent a model for the rest of the country to follow,” said Bell, 56, of Kenosha, Wis. “I also feel really good for my family because I think when (Wisconsin) Governor (Scott) Walker signed the bill it was a healing moment.”
On Nov. 9, 2004, Michael Bell’s unarmed son was shot in the head outside his home by police officers who were cleared of any wrongdoing by their department.
Michael Bell, 21, died in Kenosha, Wis., after getting into a scuffle with Kenosha police officers. Bell was returning from a night out with friends when police stopped him. His father says he was murdered by overzealous cops but police say the young man was resisting arrest.
Bell, who received part of a $1.75 million civil rights lawsuit settlement, spent more than $850,000 on billboards, newspaper ads and commercials questioning whether police officers should be allowed to investigate other officers who kill while on duty.
“You have to be relentless and essentially that’s what we did for 10 years,” Bell said, of the efforts of he, his family and other advocates.
The new bill applies to deaths that happen when an officer is on duty or while he or she is off duty but performing activities that are within the scope of his or her law enforcement duties. Internal department investigations are also still allowed but cannot interfere with the work of the outside investigations, the bill says.
Walker signed the legislation into law Wednesday.
“An overwhelming majority of police officers follow procedures and do a good job of protecting and serving the public,” Walker said in a statement. “This bill just adds another level of transparency in the investigation process.”
Jim Palmer, executive director of Wisconsin Professional Police Association, echoed those sentiments.
“There is a great value in having uniforms and standards applied across the board,” Palmer said. “This represents a positive move forward.”
Palmer, Bell and Wisconsin State Rep. Gary Bies, who introduced the bill, say they believe this is the first law of its kind.
The National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks laws around the country, hasn’t compiled a 50-state review of the issue, an official there said. Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum, also wasn’t sure whether other states have similar measures.
Bies spent more than 30 years at the Door County Sheriff’s Department, serving some of that time as the chief deputy sheriff. Officer-involved deaths are emotional incidents so having someone outside the department help ensures the cases are handled correctly, he said.
Outside investigators can ” take more of a look at it in a methodical manner to make sure everything is covered,” Bies said.
Eugene O’Donnell is a lecturer in John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s department of law and police studies and a former New York City a police officer.
He said he supports the bill’s effort to create more transparency and trust. But, he believes it “usurps the role of local police and prosecutors, imposing a mandate for outside investigators to come in.”
Still, O’Donnell added this: “Law enforcement officers who balk at this legislation should put themselves in the shoes of someone whose teenager is ‘brought to the station’ for a criminal infraction and comes out in a medical examiners vehicle.”