A Wisconsin man whose son was shot and killed by a police officer in 2004 told Missouri lawmakers on Tuesday that independent investigations into such deaths are necessary to ensure justice.
The House Civil and Criminal Proceedings Committee is considering a measure that would require police departments to have a written policy on investigating officer-involved deaths and have such an investigation conducted by officers who aren’t employed by the same agency.
The proposal is similar to one signed into law by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker last year and is one of a number of bills proposed this year in Missouri after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson by a police officer in August. Other bills would require police to wear body cameras and place limits on revenue cities can collect from traffic fines and fees.
Michael Bell’s son was shot in the head after a struggle with officers in front of his Kenosha, Wisconsin, home. An officer had followed the 21-year-old home after observing his driving, and his mother and sister saw the shooting. A toxicology report showed Bell’s son had been drinking.
Bell said when he began pushing for answers after his son’s death, few authorities bothered to respond.
“It was apparent to me at the beginning that the investigation was deeply flawed,” Bell said. “They were self-investigating, they were self-reviewing and within 48 hours they found the shooting was justified and I really had a problem with that.”
Bell said his and others’ insistence led to the Wisconsin law.
The session is past the mid-point, but bill sponsor Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, said he thought it had a better chance than some other Ferguson-related bills, partly because it’s not costly like the body-camera proposal.
Lawmakers on the committee expressed support for the idea, although some asked if the measure should go farther and require a statewide unit to investigate such cases. Some expressed concerns that police department leaders might choose investigators friendly with the officers involved.
Dogan said he reached out to Bell after reading his August 15 column on Politico’s website that linked the Wisconsin law to Brown’s death. Dogan said the fallout in Ferguson exposed the mistrust in law enforcement felt by many in the St. Louis area and that external investigations were one step in restoring that trust.
“I think most law enforcement are good people and they’re doing their job the right way but when they don’t they need to be held accountable just like any other public official,” Dogan said.
Bell’s family eventually got a settlement from the Kenosha Police Department in a wrongful death case, although the department admitted no wrongdoing. Bell said he used the money to fund his efforts to campaign for a change to the law in Wisconsin.
Bell and Dogan said that there might be other approaches, but that requiring at least an outside investigation was a step in the right direction.
“My child when he was killed didn’t have the opportunity even for this,” Bell said.
Chairman Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, said he supports the bill because it increases transparency and will bring it up for a vote when Dogan gets enough support from the committee to pass it.