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Latest Kenosha Police shooting hits close to home for family of Michael Bell

For Michael M. Bell, word on August 23 that Kenosha Police had shot Jacob Blake in the back at close range replayed events from nearly 16 years ago.

A Kenosha Police officer shot Bell’s son, Michael E. Bell, in the head November 9, 2004, killing him — and sending the father on a crusade to reform the process for investigating police officer misconduct, particularly when it involves the use of deadly force.

The officer who fired the shot that killed the younger Bell has never been charged. Michael M. Bell sued the city of Kenosha over his son’s killing, and in 2010 the city paid $1.75 million to settle the suit after pretrial depositions uncovered inconsistencies in police accounts of the incident. He has used that money, in part, to campaign for reforming how the law handles deaths in which police officers are involved — and also to press for a reexamination of his son’s death.

As Bell was sitting down to dinner with his family on Sunday evening, August 23, he had not yet heard about the shooting. People contacted him via the Facebook page he maintains about his son’s death, urging him to watch the video recorded by a bystander of the encounter between Blake and police.

“I was very surprised,” Bell said. One similarity in particular struck him: “There were family members sitting right there.” Blake’s three children, in the back seat of his vehicle. “That was very disturbing, because Michael’s mother and Michael’s sister had both witnessed my son being shot.”

A big difference between the two cases was how the law is supposed to handle them.

“When my son was killed the police investigated themselves and acquitted themselves of wrongdoing in just two days,” Bell said. Since then, “in the state of Wisconsin, this is now being investigated by an outside agency.”

Michael M. Bell’s work led to that change — a bipartisan 2014 law that requires that when a person dies in the custody of a law enforcement officer, an agency other than the officer’s must investigate. Although officials said Monday it appeared Blake will survive the shooting, the state Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation has taken over the investigation and plans to report back within 30 days.

Bell has been working with State Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) on legislation that would create a statewide body to review all incidents in which people die in law enforcement custody. According to Bell, it has been through several drafts and was to be released as soon as this week.

State Representative David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) has, with other members of the Legislative Black Caucus, helped shape some of the bills that Governor Tony Evers introduced in June.

Bell, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot, said the legislation under development would treat officer-involved deaths in a manner analogous to how airplane crashes are treated by the National Transportation Safety Board: analyze the root causes and recommend ways to prevent a recurrence.

“What this bill does, it looks [at the incident] with a fresh set of eyes and said, ‘What is the root-cause analysis? Why did this happen? And how do we prevent it from happening again?’”

Incidents would be recorded in a database, and followed up “to see if these reforms are actually working,” Bell said. “And it’ll allow dissemination of these lessons, so that way, new officers coming into the force can go back and say, ‘That killed somebody 20 years ago, you don’t want to do it that way. You want to do it this way.’ That’s exactly the way it happens in flying, and that’s the way it can happen here.”

Bell said the process as he envisioned it would allow the proposed investigative body — with members named by the governor, the attorney general, legislative leaders of both parties, and representatives from police organizations, the state public defender’s office and prosecutors — to refer some cases for prosecution.

But it would not replace the 2014 law outlining procedures for outside law enforcement agencies to investigate the incidents, he said, which is intentional about separating the task of identifying the root cause of a death and assigning criminal responsibility. Bell has coauthored an article arguing for that principle with journalist Bill Scott, another aviator whose son was killed by police in 2010.

The events surrounding Michael E. Bell’s killing have been contested. Police accounts have stated he was killed after a struggle in which one police officer shouted that Michael E. Bell had taken his gun. Hearing that, another officer who had his gun trained on Bell shot him in the head.

An outside investigation the elder Bell commissioned concluded that the officer who thought his gun had been taken had, instead, accidentally caught his belt on a car mirror at the scene. The investigation pointed out that his son’s DNA was never found on the gun and there is no evidence he touched it.

But so far Bell has not persuaded the Kenosha Police Department, the Kenosha Police and Fire Commission, the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department, the Kenosha County District Attorney, or the Wisconsin Department of Justice to reexamine the case of his son’s killing. In 2018, he took out a full-page Washington Post ad calling on police to reopen the case.

The police department declined to do so, however, and has denied wrongdoing in its handling of the case. Bell said he will soon release a documentary that recounts findings from his review of emails among several agencies “blocking a proper investigation” into his son’s shooting.

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