What I Did After Police Killed My Son
by Micheal Bell
Wanting to uncover the truth, our family hired a private investigator who ended up teaming up with a retired police detective to launch their own investigation. They discovered that the officer who thought his gun was being grabbed in fact had caught it on a broken car mirror. The emergency medical technicians who arrived later found the officers fighting with each other over what happened. We filed an 1,100-page report detailing Michael’s killing with the FBI and US Attorney.
It took six years to get our wrongful death lawsuit settled, and my family received $1.75 million. But I wasn’t satisfied by a long shot. I used my entire portion of that money and much more of my own to continue a campaign for more police accountability. I wanted to change things for everyone else, so no one else would ever have to go through what I did. We did our research: In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified. There was one shooting we found, in 2005, that was ruled justified by the department and an inquest, but additional evidence provided by citizens caused the DA to charge the officer. The city of Milwaukee settled with a confidentiality agreement and the facts of that sealed. The officer involved committed suicide.
The problem over many decades, in other words, was a near-total lack of accountability for wrongdoing; and if police on duty believe they can get away with almost anything, they will act accordingly. As a military pilot, I knew that if law professionals investigated police-related deaths like, say, the way that the National Transportation Safety Board investigated aviation mishaps, police-related deaths would be at an all time low.
And so, together with other families who lost loved ones, I launched a campaign in the Wisconsin legislature calling for a new law that would require outside review of all deaths in police custody. I contacted everybody I could. In the beginning, I contacted the governor’s office, the attorney general and the U.S. attorney for Wisconsin. They didn’t even return my phone calls or letters. I even contacted Oprah, every Associated Press bureau in the nation, every national magazine and national news agency and didn’t hear a word.
But Frank Serpico, the famous retired New York City police detective, helped. He had his own experience taking on police corruption. I set up billboards and a website and took out newspaper ads, including national ads in the New York Times and USA Today, and Serpico allowed me to use his endorsement. “When police take a life, should they investigate themselves?” the ad read.
Finally we began to get some movement, helped by a friendly Republican legislator, Garey Bies, and a Democratic assemblyman named Chris Taylor, in August of 2012. In April of this year we passed a law that made Wisconsin the first state in the nation to mandate at legislative level that police-related deaths be reviewed by an outside agency. Ten days after it went into effect in May, local police shot a man sleeping on a park bench 15 times. It’s one of the first incidents to be investigated under the new law.
I’m not anti-cop. And I am finding that many police want change as well: The good officers in the state of Wisconsin supported our bill from the inside, and it was endorsed by five police unions. But I also think the days of Andy Griffith and the Mayberry peacekeeper are over. As we can see in the streets of Ferguson, today’s police are also much more heavily equipped, armed and armored—more militarized. They are moving to more paramilitary-type operations as well, and all those shifts call for more transparency and more rules of restraint. And yet they are even less accountable in some ways than the U.S. military in which I served. Our citizens need protection from undue force, here in our own country, and now.
Michael Bell is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force.
source: Politico Magazine