Michael Bell, Sr. discusses how the fatal police shooting of his son a decade ago led to the passage of a 2014 Wisconsin law that bars police from investigating themselves after a fatal shooting
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
Today we’ll learn about the story of an unarmed man killed with impunity by police and how his family’s quest for justice led one state to become the first in the nation to call for outside investigations of police shootings. On November 9, 2004, 21-year-old Michael Bell was pulled over in front of his house by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Officers on the scene said Michael was likely inebriated, resisted arrest, and tried to go for an officer’s gun. But Michael’s mother came out of her house and yelled to police that Michael was in fact not going for the officer’s gun. This led to another officer putting a gun to Michael’s Temple and shooting him dead. Just two days later, police had concluded their investigation and cleared themselves of all wrongdoing.
But this didn’t sit well with his father, Michael Bell Sr., a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Air Force. He now joins us from Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Thank so much for joining us.
MICHAEL BELL SR., LT. COL., U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): Jaisal, thank you for having me here on Real News Network.
NOOR: So, Michael, you became an activist after your son was killed by Kenosha police on November 9. You eventually won a $1.75 million wrongful death lawsuit from the city. And you poured that money into a campaign that last year led Wisconsin to become the first state to mandate outside agencies investigate fatal police shootings.
BELL: That’s correct.
NOOR: And in a recent article you wrote, putting this in the context of what’s been happening around the country with the killing of other unarmed young people, in these cases African-American men in Ferguson and in New York, you noted that an African man approached you after police cleared themselves of wrongdoing in the case of your son and said, quote, if they can shoot a white boy like a dog, imagine what we have been going through.
BELL: Well, first off, that comment that was made by that gentleman was actually just about three miles from here, and I can remember it very clearly. I mean, he walked up to me and he said that. And it caused me to stop and it caused me to think. And I always said this, that I had a blond-haired blue-eyed boy, and he was killed, and there were eyewitnesses all around. And if his dad can’t get justice for this, how are other families, the Asian family, Hispanic family, the African-American family?
And when we did our own research, we found out that in 129 years in Wisconsin, since 1885, since police and fire commissions were formed, that there has never–those ruling bodies have never found a police shooting unjustified. And we were appalled. That’s an impossible record of perfection. And so, therefore, I said the systems damaged, and if we can’t get this done, nobody’ll get it done.
So we had a lawsuit settlement. We refused to accept a nondisclosure of confidentiality agreement, so we can keep Michael’s files open, and then we use those resources and then much more of our own to get the law passed. And in April 23, 2014, Governor Walker signed the bill mandating that all police-involved shootings in the state of Wisconsin be investigated by outside agencies.
NOOR: And after the killing of your son, the local police chief said, quote, “The investigation showed that the actions of the officers were reasonable, appropriate and well within Kenosha Police Department policy, procedure, and training. I am fully confident that the officer’s actions complied with the Kenosha Police Department’s use of force guidelines.” Now, that is something that we’re familiar with in Baltimore and many communities are around the country. So after you won the wrongful death lawsuit, why did you focus on this campaign that you spoke about? Why did you think that outside investigations were so critical? And this didn’t apply to the case of your son, but for future similar situations.
BELL: When Michael was first killed, a lot of people were calling for the officers’ heads. And I’m like, hey, no, I know the way safety investigations work in the United States Air Force. I’m a pilot. And I thought that this system was going to parallel the system that I’m familiar with. But it wasn’t. It was just a sham. And so I knew that if this system was changed to something similar to what we do in the aviation industry, that it would change the way law enforcement is today. And I felt, here I am, I’m a retired Air Force officer, I had a son killed, I’m familiar with law enforcement, ’cause many times during my career I had law enforcement under my command. And I thought, if I can’t get this done, nobody’s going to get it done. So it became a ten-year mission.
And you have to understand that it’s not only us, but there were a number of other shootings and a number of other families and a number of other legislators involved involved with this to get this done in the state of Wisconsin. It was a very difficult thing to get done. But we cleared that hurdle.
NOOR: And part of your struggle and part of the struggle around the country is with police unions. And it’s their job to protect the interests of police. But how do you get them on board? And I know you spent–I know part of your story is getting these billboards all over Wisconsin, and you told the unions that–you know, come to the table if you want these billboards done. Talk about what those billboards are and how you got the unions on the table.
BELL: We were never able to control our message. The media would pick up on it, they would report on it once, and that would be it. But it needed that sustained availability in the community to get this message driven home. And so we tried things like The New York Times, USA Today, and TV. But at one point, I mean, I had a dream, and in this dream I seen this gun, and right next to it, later on, I came up with the words when police kill, should they judge themselves. And since our case was never sealed under a confidentiality agreement, I could then take all that data and put it on a website, the MichaelBell.info website, and show people really what went wrong. And at one point I made a decision to put up the billboards, and I did it a little bit broad. I did it at six major highways around the state of Wisconsin.
But later on I learned out that if I focused it in a community where a police-involved shooting occurred, it created a lot of havoc for both the law enforcement and the community. In Milwaukee, there was the death of a young African-American man. His name was Derek Williams Jr. He was in the backseat of a squad car, and he couldn’t breathe. He had a health issue. And he was begging officers, sir, I can’t breathe, I need help. And this is very reflective of the Eric Garner case in New York. But this boy actually died in the backseat of the squad car. And the film showed his last breath.
So we went into Milwaukee. I put up some billboards. It started creating a commotion. And Gandhi always said that first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, and then you win. And when the attack started happening, I increased the amount of billboards that were out there. We went from 17 to 23 and then to 43 billboards. At one point we had twelve and a half million people per week driving by these huge, massive billboards with this huge a smoking gun that said, “When police kill, should they judge themselves?” And there were other messages on there too, like “Name one department that found its own shooting unjustified” and so forth.
Eventually I went to the state’s largest law enforcement union. I met with that director. He was pretty ticked off with me. But he–eventually we sat down, we had dialog, and he said, listen, he said, if you want to take those billboards down, we will help you craft the bill that you’re seeking. And that’s really the start of it. And I found law enforcement that wanted to take care of this too. They didn’t want to destroy the trust that they had in the community. And if it wasn’t for law enforcement coming to our assistance on this, I don’t think we would have had the bill passed.
NOOR: And so this bill, it focuses with investigations. And my understanding is that–and then, so it does not affect the actual prosecutions. Is that correct?
BELL: The investigation of the data is an important part. I recognize that there are six core elements within the aviation industry, and law enforcement was pretty much failing on all six of those elements. You’ve got to collect the data in a timely manner. You have to have an outside investigator bring in this data, because, for example, if an airplane crashed and the company that owned that airplane did the investigation, it would always be suspect because bias is built in. So the aviation industry and the military–I learned long time ago that you couldn’t investigate yourself. So they brought in outside investigators. After all that data is collected, then it goes to an independent review.
Going back to the data collection portion, we’re always talking about body cameras. Well, body cameras are in many ways like the black box on an airplane, the flight data recorder. It’s collecting all the information at the time of death. But if that data isn’t scrutinized with by the methods used in the aviation industry, the change in culture that we seek and the trust that we seek in law enforcement isn’t going to occur. And that’s what all those six elements that are in law enforcement or in the aviation industry have to occur with the law enforcement investigation.
NOOR: And some of the discussions we’ve had at The Real News–and we’ve hosted town halls about this same issue–and what some retired police officers, including Neill Franklin, who is a 34-year veteran of the state police force here–and he helped train the last Baltimore Police Department. And what some people are saying is that all these type of measures were talking about a reactive, they’re after the fact. What we need is a governing body in which community members, and maybe law enforcement, other groups, sit down and they decide the policy of the police to avoid such interactions, to avoid something in these types of situations, and where unarmed people can lose their lives. Would you be in support of something like that?
BELL: It depends upon the framework. One of the things I want your audience to understand is that 25 percent of police shootings or police-related deaths called mistake of fact. My own son’s death was a mistake of fact. An officer had hooked his holster on a car mirror on the driver’s side door, and he felt this tugging, and he started screaming, he’s got my gun, he’s got my gun. And that’s when this officer placed the gun directly to my son’s head. If you look at the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland, it was another mistake of fact. You’ve got a 12-year-old boy, he’s got a Airsoft Gun, and it was mistake of fact. If you go to Douglas Zerby in California, he was sitting on his own porch, and he had a spray nozzle from his garden hose. If you take a look at Amadu Diallo out of New York, he was reaching for his wallet. So if you have these governing bodies that can review these things without bias, and they can come back and say, why did we kill this person and what can we do the next time to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, it will change the culture and it will make the system better.
One of the things that there’s a problem with is there is no data. And like I said in the article that I wrote for Politico on how to end cop hunting, we know how many rats there are in New York City. We know that last year 23 percent of our nation’s honeybee population died. But we don’t know how many times a police officer killed a person in the United States, whether justified or not, and that’s wrong. And that’s intentional. And you can legislate a solution, but you can’t legislate a solution if you’re unaware of the trends.
NOOR: Well, I want to thank so much for joining us and sharing your story.
BELL: Thank you very much for having me. If anybody would like to reach out to us, our Facebook page is called Plea For A Change. Or visit me through MichaelBell.info.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.
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