In 2004, Michael Bell Sr.’s 21-year-old son was shot and killed by a Kenosha officer during a struggle after a traffic stop in front of his home. So when Bell saw the disturbing video of the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed 29-year-old man shot in the back multiple times by a Kenosha officer as he tried to get inside a car with his children inside, he said he sympathized with the family’s trauma.
Bell said he was also alarmed to see the distraught woman screaming and jumping up and down as the officer fired seven times at Blake on video taken by a bystander.
Blake is a Black and Bell’s son is White but their shootings shared similarities. Like Blake, Bell’s son Michael Bell Jr., was shot in front of witnesses that included his loved ones. Bell Jr.’s mother and sister were just feet away as he was shot in the head.
“My own daughter and son’s mother witnessed my son being shot,” Bell told CBS News. “I know the trauma they had to live through, and they’re still not right. Nobody understands the pain the family is going through — it’s a degree of suffering nobody understands until they experience it themselves.”
Blake family attorney Benjamin Crump told CBS News three of Blake’s sons — ages 3, 5 and 8 — were inside the SUV when their father was shot by police. The family was out celebrating one of the children’s birthdays.
“These kids, these babies, are gonna have psychological issues for the rest of their entire life,” Crump said.
The shooting spurred protests and unrest in Kenosha as the nation continues to grapple with systemic racism and police violence in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It has also drawn the national spotlight to the work of Bell and others who have been pushing for police reform in Wisconsin and nationwide for years.
Officers involved in his son’s shooting were ruled justified three days after the launch of an internal Kenosha police investigation and later cleared by prosecutors. That prompted Bell to fight for the passage of landmark 2014 legislation that made Wisconsin the first state in the country to require deaths caused by police to be investigated by an outside agency. The shooting of Blake, who survived, is now the subject of an independent probe by the state Department of Justice.
Speaking Monday, Wisconsin attorney general Josh Kaul pledged to “vigorously and fully” investigate the case, but said an ultimate charging decision would be up to Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley.
Bell, who pushed to have the case re-opened with a high-profile billboard and media campaign after what he views as a botched investigation, said his son’s case was not afforded the same measures. The account of officers who said Bell Jr. had grabbed one officer’s gun as he was being restrained over a car in the family’s driveway, causing another officer to shoot the man in the head, was later called into question, CBS News’ Erin Moriarty reported. The city of Kenosha later settled the case for $1.75 million. An officer involved in the case committed suicide in 2010.
In Blake’s case, Crump has said the father was trying to to deescalate a domestic incident when police drew their weapons, tasered him, and then opened fire as he was walking away to check on his children. Bell said he is withholding judgment until more information is known about Blake’s shooting, but said the shooting “looks pretty bad” and said the law enforcement system in Kenosha is “broken.”
Bell advocates not only for thorough investigation of police shootings, but putting in place mechanisms to prevent them. He has recently championed legislation that would create a statewide independent use of force advisory board to review the circumstances surrounding police shootings and make recommendations to avoid similar deaths or injuries in the future. The legislation is still in draft form and is set to be announced this week by Wisconsin Republican state senator Van Wanggaard, the lawmaker’s office confirmed to CBS News.
Bell, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, has advocated at the national level for police shooting investigations to be modeled after the National Transportation Safety Advisory Board’s probes of aviation accidents. Speaking before President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2015, Bell said the NTSB uses independent investigators, and “once the cause of an accident is determined by the safety board, that information is distributed throughout the community to reduce the chances of it happening again.”
Under the proposal in Wisconsin, an investigation by the use of force advisory board would be triggered after a law enforcement officer causes a death or a serious injury, or when a law enforcement officer is killed or seriously injured. After any associated criminal investigation is complete, the investigative materials would then be transferred over to the board, which would include police trainers, union representatives, attorneys and a mental health professional. The board would use outside experts to review the incidents and then issue an advisory report with recommendations to be made public and submitted to legislators and all state law enforcement agencies.
Body camera video, if it exists, would play a key role in helping state or federal investigators determine what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again, Bell said.
“Body cameras in many ways are like the black box on an airplane — they record all the critical data at the moment of death that’s important,” Bell said. “If you want to turn around and make the system better, you have to have a root cause analysis.”
In both Blake’s case and the case of Bell’s son, a lack of body camera video has left key questions lingering. Kenosha police officers are not outfitted with body cameras, though they are slated in the city’s budget for 2022, Mayor John Antaramian said Monday. City officials endorsed adopting body cameras in 2017, but have delayed implementation citing budget concerns, reports the Associated Press.
“We have asked for body cameras here in Kenosha, and they just keep pushing it downstream,” Bell said.
Speaking Monday, Wisconsin Democratic governor Tony Evers called for a special session for the legislature to take up a package of police reform bills he introduced in June. But if that session moves forward, it would not touch on the independent use of force advisory board, something that would likely be formally introduced when lawmakers reconvene later this year. The governor’s police reform package lays out a series of proposals that have passed in other states, such as banning the use of police chokeholds and no-knock warrants, strengthening accountability and transparency measures and creating a state-wide police use of force standard. Evers condemned the shooting and said he stood against “excessive use of force and immediate escalation when engaging with Black Wisconsinites.”
“We know racism and the racial disparities in our state can’t be solved by signing any bill or package of bills — this can only be a first step,” Evers said.
Democratic Rep. David Bowen, a member of the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus, said he supports the package but would need to work with Republicans, who control both chambers. Bowen said the proposals are likely to be viewed as controversial, but he has talked with Wanggaard, the Republican Majority Caucus chair. In a statement, Wanggaard said the video showing Blake’s shooting “appears shocking,” but cautioned there is much that can’t be seen and urged patience until the completion of the state Department of Justice probe.
“If the investigation shows the shooting to be unjustified, people will be held accountable,” Wanggaard said.
Bowen said he couldn’t speak to a proposed use-of-force board since the details of the bill haven’t been formally announced. But he called for “boldest of proposals out there to give people the confidence that we are actually addressing the most poignant issues of this era.”
Bowen said he would push for a state use-of-force standard to ensure officers are required to preserve life rather than “using more lethal means that escalate situations.”
“I think the most frustrating part, which is reflected by people’s actions last night in Kenosha, is frustration over the of the lack of change — we needed this change yesterday, we needed to act yesterday,” Bowen said Monday, referring to the unrest. “It’s very clear the time for focus to act on legislative solutions is now. It can’t be delayed further.”
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