Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. Now, normally at this point in the show I talk about, of course. Police accountability. But I’m going to have to change it up a bit here and say simply, that the entire premise may be faulty. Why do I say that? Well, earlier this week, this scene played out in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Police shot Jacob Blake, multiple times in the back, while his children watched.

The Kenosha, Wisconsin Police Department issued this terse statement, until this video surfaced, showing what led up to the shooting. Let’s watch, but just a warning, what you are about to see is violent and very disturbing.
video: [inaudible 00:00:59].

Taya Graham: Blake survived the seven shots and is paralyzed from the waist down. Protests have enveloped the town of Kenosha and calls for the arrest of the officer involved have prompted protests throughout the city. Right-wing militias have also arrived, claiming to protect property. They killed two protestors and injured one early Wednesday morning. For more, I’m going to my reporting partner, Stephen Janis out in the field. Steven, please give us the latest of what is happening on the ground in Kenosha.

Stephen Janis: Yeah, well, in the third day of protest, after the shooting of Jacob Blake, they have a militia, which is up here, called the Kenosha Militia, which appears to be people from outside the area who came armed with guns to confront protestors. And what happened was one of those members of the militia shot and killed two people and severely wounded another during the protest. Some of this was captured on video, which we’re showing right now. So it really seems to have escalated and turn what were peaceful protests, into a violent confrontation.

Taya Graham: We have just found out that two protesters were just shot and killed and one was wounded in Wisconsin. What is happening on the ground there?

Stephen Janis: Right now, we know who one person is and that is 17 year old, Kyle Rittenhouse. He was arrested just today and charged with first degree intentional homicide. So he is 17 years old, he is part of this militia. We don’t have any sort of formal organization, but we do know that the conspiracy theory based website InfoWars was promoting the militia and promoting the fact that purchasers should show up. So certainly, it’s part of a right wing perspective on this and certainly, fueled by right wing extremism.

Taya Graham: What are police saying about the investigation into Jacob Blake’s shooting?

Stephen Janis: Well, right now, they are saying nothing. Technically, this investigation is being handled by the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Police have not talked about anything about the details, about why the officers do this. Another video emerged, which shows a couple seconds before the police are seen coming around the van from a different perspective, but it really doesn’t tell us much and police had said even little.

One thing that’s interesting is that the sheriff of the county that includes Kenosha said that he had got a call from a person who said, “Why don’t you deputize the entire city or deputize anyone who wants to bring guns?” And let’s remember that the suspect in the murder had an AR-15 in his possession. So certainly, we don’t know much about the investigation, but we know tensions are heightened and we know that there’s concern about violence there.

Taya Graham: The reason I said at the top of the show that my intro would be different is because the police shooting of Jacob Blake happened in the wake of a multi year effort to reform the police in the same town where it happened. Since 2004, the father of Michael Bell Jr. Who was shot by the same police department, has worked tirelessly to overhaul the process of investigating police shootings and called for reform of how police can use deadly force.

Bell was shot during routine car stop. Officers had pulled him over in his family’s driveway for reasons that still remain unclear. And as he was being held over the car, an officer yelled that Michael had tried to grab one of the officers’ guns, which was later proved to be untrue. But in the confusion, an officer shot Belt in the head. Turns out the gun accusations were false, no DNA or fingerprints were found on the officer’s gun. There was no forensic evidence that Bell had touched the gun.

Instead, an investigation afterward determined that the officer’s weapon had brushed against a car side mirror. Three days after the shooting, police cleared all the officers involved and no charges were filed, but Bell’s father sued the department and won a settlement, which he used to fight to change the system. And he managed to win some changes to how police investigate themselves, which we will discuss later.

But the bottom line is despite the calls for change, Kenosha police are again involved in another controversial shooting, even though the shooting of Bell led to reform and calls for changes to policing. The community again, faces another troublesome use of force. To discuss what happened and why we’re forming law enforcement is always a work in progress, I’m joined by the man responsible for most of what little change has been seen in Kenosha.

His name is Michael Bell Sr, and he’s the father of the victim of the 2004 shooting. Here he is to talk about his efforts to obtain justice in the wake of his son’s death and give us his take on the shooting of Jacob Blake. Mr. Bell, thank you so much for joining me.

Michael Bell Sr.: I’m really happy to be here. Hopefully I can help in some way.

Taya Graham: So I know this is painful and must bring up terrible memories. But what did you think when you saw the video of the shooting of Jacob Blake?

Michael Bell Sr.: It was pretty upsetting. I mean, it was very heartbreaking. You got to remember that I had my own son that was shot and killed by a police officer and his mother and his sister stood there and watched it. And one of the first things that I saw was this young lady jumping up and down as her family member was being shot and I know the incredible amount of stress she was going through at that moment. So it’s pretty emotional, pretty nerve wracking.

Taya Graham: So I want to talk about your struggle to reform policing Wisconsin in light of your son’s death. First, just so people understand, please tell us what happened to your son.

Michael Bell Sr.: Well, first off is, I give you the short answer, but if anybody wants to follow up on it, all you have to do is go to michaelbell.info and they can watch a short documentary there. It’s called Forensically Impossible: The Anatomy of a Police Coverup. My son was coming home from a night out with friends. He arrived in front of his own home. He was turning off his car, a police officer arrived behind him. As he got out of the car, a police officer yelled, “Get back in the car, get back in the car.”

There was no common courtesies, no like sir, can I see your driver’s license? The guy grabbed him by the neck, started pushing him in front of the car. And saw somebody else in the front seat and decided they didn’t want two people together and pulled them in the back. Make a long story short. He made some accusations. He accused my son is speeding and running a stop sign later in depositions. He recanted that, but he inflamed the situation. He started accusing my sense of things that he didn’t do.

At some point, there was some arguing back and forth. They threatened to tase him, they did tase him. You can hear him screaming in the background in those videos. And essentially, he ran to the back of his own home. And the motion sensor spotlight’s turned on, a mother and sister came out and watch this and may saw a Rodney King style beating occur with my son.

An officer bent Michael over the car hood in a bear hug. Another officer at that point, screamed, “He has my gun.” A fourth officer came up to the scene, put his gun directly to my son’s temple and pulled the trigger, the gun didn’t fire because the slide on the gun was disengaged. And so the guy put the gun back to my son’s temple and killed him right in front of his mother and sister.

There were five civilian eyewitnesses and not one of their testimony was even considered. They just strictly went to the version of the police officer. And later on in court, after years of waiting, my attorney allowed all four officers to lie in sequence. And after the last officer lied, he gave him a copy of the medical examiner’s report. They created a story where they shot Michael on the left side of the head. And the medical examiner said that it was forensically impossible, because he was shot on the right side of the head.

And that led into a civil rights lawsuit. And what bothered me is, I’m a retired Air Force officer. I was a pilot. And what bothered me was that the coworkers of the officers involved conducted their own investigation and cleared the officers involved of no wrongdoing within two days. Two calendar days, they were complete. And I knew as an Air Force officer, that accident investigations on airplanes took far longer. And I couldn’t imagine even in the best scenario that something could be done in two days. And so we pushed for a law and in 2014, we were able to get a law passed in the state of Wisconsin. I am told that it was the first in the nation and that law states that no department that has a police involved death. Can investigate itself.

Taya Graham: Tell us what happened after your son was killed by the police. I believe the police investigation into his death took only three days and it was ruled justified homicide. Were there any criminal charges filed against these officers?

Michael Bell Sr.: No, no, no. I still can’t get the investigation opened. There was a flawed original investigation. There was a coverup. What we later found out was this, I brought in my own detectives, I brought in my own investigators.

And actually a police detective, his name is Russell Beckman, that worked for the Kenosha Police Department. He solved it and what it was is that there was a gun belt on this one officer’s holster and it had what was called a jacket gap. And it fit perfectly onto a car mirror on this Nissan Pulsar, where the struggle took place and it fit right between the guy’s gun and his belt. And as he turned, he felt a tugging on it and that’s why he screamed, “He has my gun.” This officer committed suicide in 2010.

Taya Graham: So you’re essentially saying that police colluded and covered up a crime because they could not admit that they made a mistake?

Michael Bell Sr.: There was a video online at michaelbell.info and our Facebook page, Plea For A Change and we show how the chief of police and the DA and the sheriff colluded together to block a proper investigation. We showed how the officers changed their testimony, up to 20 times, they changed your testimony and they allowed the changing testimony to fly. Nobody bothered to do anything about it. I have a letter from the Attorney General that says at best, the officers are mistaken, at worst, they lied. And we still could not get any kind of investigation regarding this.

Taya Graham: Mr. Bell, what was it like fighting the system? How hard was it to win the changes you fought for and what were you able to accomplish?

Michael Bell Sr.: Well, first off, it was a team effort. There were other people involved and you have to remember that we settled a civil rights lawsuit, but I refuse to accept a nondisclosure confidentiality agreement. We were able to bring the material forward. Instead of it being sealed and locked up, we were able to show the public really what’s going on in Kenosha. But it was extremely difficult and it was one of the most nerve wracking things that we’ve done, but we got it done.

And right now, the Jacob Blake case is being reviewed underneath that law. I mean, Kenosha police conduct the shooting and an outside agency had to come in and conduct the investigation, but we still have problems. And we still have ways to go. And because the local DA, who is his political basis, law enforcement in the community, both the Sheriff’s agency and their family and the police department, he gets to review the case. And so he’s not going to go against his political base. So I can’t speculate, but past history shows that he’s probably going to disregard this and just save the officer.

Taya Graham: Mr. Bell, what do you want to see happen in the Jacob Blake case? And what do you want for your son’s case? What do you think needs to happen in both cases?

Michael Bell Sr.: Jacob Blake, first off, is there needs to be an open and transparent investigation. The findings need to be released. I believe there should be an independent prosecutor appointed. I don’t think somebody that works hand in hand with the chief of police. There are on are first name basis. I have text messages between the DA and the chief of police and they’re on a first name basis.

I don’t think he should be reviewing this case. And so I think there needs to be an independent outside prosecutor taking a look at it and that’s the best I can hope for now. I heard that Jacob Blake is paralyzed. I’m hoping that he recovers. I consider them to be lucky because at least he is alive, where I didn’t have that. In my own son’s case, I think there should be a grand jury. And I think that the findings we’ll probably find that the officer should be charged with second degree intentional homicide and that’s what I think needs to happen.

Taya Graham: As you see, the police reform movement in this country, what changes would you like to see made now that there’s more awareness? What do you hope to see change?

Michael Bell Sr.: First off, I support law enforcement. It’s a very difficult job. And if you had a son or a father that was a law enforcement officer, you’d be very worried about that. And if you go to our Facebook page, I post heroic things that officers do all the time. And some of them, they’re pulling people out of burning cars or rescuing people out of raging rivers. They’re giving mouth-to-mouth to little babies that are suffocating. And so don’t forget that, they’re human beings too.

But right now, a bill is going to be introduced tomorrow in the state of Wisconsin. And it’s a bill that creates an NTSB style learning model for law enforcement. They’re going to take a look at the shooting and they’re going to determine what went wrong. And they’re going to look at root cause analysis, and they’re going to try to figure out what makes it better.

And just like in aviation airplane crashes, they look at all the root cause analysis and they try to figure out how to stop it from happening again. But not only do you have to do that, then you have to teach those lessons over and over again to new recruits coming in, and you have to have a database that you can measure it against.

Taya Graham: While we watched the tragedy of both police shootings, nearly two decades unfold in Kenosha, I can’t help but return to a question that we have asked repeatedly on this show. It’s a concept that speaks to the very essence of why American policing seems at times, so inexplicably violent and also immune to reform. Why do routine stops in minor encounters lead to death? Why do arrests for minor traffic infractions and nonviolent crimes often end in tragedy?

As you recall, American police are among the most violent in the world. An investigation by the Guardian Newspaper found police in other countries, rarely shoot to kill. For example, in Wales, England police killed 55 people in 24 years. In the US, police killed the same number of people in just 24 days. And even after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, the killing still hasn’t stopped.

The Washington Post found the number of police killings are in the same pace as last year, already over 500 killings in 2020. The point is, like the case of Michael Bell and Jacob Blake, how many of these victims are unarmed? How many of these situations could have been deescalated? And how many of the people who died, actually posed a threat and why do they keep occurring despite the efforts of people like Michael Bell Sr?

It’s a question we don’t ask enough in this country. And a point that bears repeating each time one of these disturbing deaths occur. Certainly, it is a question we will continue to ask on this show. I would like to thank my guest, Michael Bell Sr. for taking the time to speak with us. Thank you, Mr. Bell.

Michael Bell Sr.: Okay. And you have my email address. If you put something online regarding this, please send it to me. We have a Facebook following of about 10,000 and that would help to … We would like to get all the material that we can out there.

Taya Graham: And I have to thank intrepid journalist, Stephen Janis, for his investigative research, writing and editing on this piece. Thank you, Steven.

Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Taya Graham: And I want to thank Real News reporter, Steve Horn for his contribution to this reporting. Thank you, Steve. And of course, I would be remiss to not thank friend of the show [Noli D. 00:16:58]. For her support. Thanks, Noli D. And I want you watching to know, that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate.

Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at par@therealnews.com and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or at Eyes On Police on Twitter. And of course, you can message me directly at tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook, and please like, and comment. It really helps. And of course, I read your comments, appreciate them and try to answer your questions whenever I can. My name is Taya Graham, and I’m your host of the police accountability report. Please be safe out there.

Taya Graham

Host & Producer
Before joining TRNN as an investigative journalist, Taya worked in Baltimore’s neighborhoods of color for years as an advocate and was awarded the Coalition of 100 Black Women’s Torchbearer Award and YANA’s (You Are Never Alone) “Love in Action” award. Her years of outreach to underserved communities have uniquely prepared her to connect with city residents. Now she cultivates relationships with Baltimore’s citizens to cover the stories on the ground.