A Father's Fight Paved Way For Independent Investigation Into Kenosha Shooting

Aug 30, 2020
Originally published on August 30, 2020 10:30 am

The Wisconsin Department of Justice is overseeing the investigation into the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was left paralyzed after he was shot seven times in front of his three kids by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis.

Until recently, it was common practice that any time an officer fired a gun, the police department conducted the investigation. In 2014, Wisconsin became the first state to end that process – one that has led to accusations of conflicts of interest and police cover-ups.

Michael Bell, whose own son was killed by Kenosha police, helped lead a decade-long fight for that change.

In 2004, Michael Bell Jr., a white 21-year-old, pulled up to his home in Kenosha after a night of drinking. As NPR previously reported, a police report showed that a Kenosha officer followed Bell Jr. after observing his driving and pulled up behind his car at the home shortly before Bell Jr. exited his vehicle. Police tried to arrest him. Bell Jr. ignored them, which lead to a tussle. His mom and sister then saw an officer shoot Bell in the head.

After an investigation that lasted just two calendar days, according to Bell , the Kenosha Police Department ruled the shooting justified. The swiftness of the investigation stunned Bell, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Air Force who has experience with accident investigations.

"I knew in my own military training and military career that typically accident and safety investigations take far longer to conduct than that," Bell said in an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday.

In response, Bell filed a civil lawsuit against the department for wrongful death. In 2010, they reached a settlement with the Bell family, but Bell said he refused to sign a confidentiality agreement. He didn't want to be silenced; he wanted reform.

Using some of the settlement money, Bell used Milwaukee's available billboards as part of a campaign to blast messages like, "When Police Kill, Should They Judge Themselves?"

"After we created enough ruckus, the unions ended up sitting down with us and talking with us," Bell told NPR in 2014.

The law that came out of that campaign made Wisconsin, beginning in 2014, the first state in the nation to mandate, on the legislative level, that if an officer was involved in a loss of life, outside investigators must be the ones to investigate that shooting.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul is overseeing the investigation into the shooting of Jacob Blake. His office has come under fire for releasing limited details about the shooting.

"I absolutely understand why people are skeptical," Kaul told NPR. "We have a history of systemic racism, and our criminal justice system is part of that. What I can tell you is that I am personally committed to making sure that this investigation is conducted vigorously and that we're pursuing justice and following the facts where they lead."

Bell, who recalled trying to get Kaul's attention in the aftermath of his son's death, isn't reassured by the state attorney general's promises.

"I brought extremely credible evidence to Josh Kaul and he wouldn't give us the time of day. So if he's doing an about-face on this, I am bothered by that," said Bell.

Still, Bell hopes that his work to get Wisconsin the protection of outside investigations into police shootings will pay off in the form of a just outcome for Blake's family.

"I want everybody to know that there are a lot of parallels between Jacob Blake and my own son," Bell said. "But we did not have the benefit of having an outside investigation conducted. And after fighting so hard for that law, Jacob Blake's family has that benefit that we never had."

NPR's Sophia Boyd and Martha Ann Overland produced and edited the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

It was common practice that anytime an officer fired a gun, the police department conducted the investigation. That's led to charges of cover-ups. The first state to end the practice was Wisconsin in 2014, and that's the reason Wisconsin's attorney general is now overseeing the investigation of the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake, who was left paralyzed after being shot seven times in the back. It took a 10-year fight to change the law - a fight led by a father whose son was killed by Kenosha police. We're joined now by Michael Bell Sr.

Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL BELL SR: Thank you, Debbie. Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: So some background here - your 21-year-old son, Michael Bell Jr., was shot and killed by a Kenosha police officer in 2004 after a DUI stop. I am so sorry for your loss. Do you mind explaining to us what happened?

BELL: My son was out with - a night out with friends. And my son decided to drive even though he was under the influence, arrived in front of his house. And then a police officer arrived right behind him, and my son refused a sobriety test. There was a number of knee strikes and tasings (ph) that occurred.

And the motion spotlight came on. And under the spotlight, the eyewitnesses and the family members saw Michael bent over a car in handcuffs with a police officer surrounding him. They heard an officer say that he has my gun. A fourth officer arrived on the scene, placed his gun directly to my son's temple. He pulled it away, put it back to my son's temple a second time and then fired a deadly shot and killed my son in front of his mother and sister.

ELLIOTT: How was that killing investigated?

BELL: The investigation was conducted by the Kenosha PD, the coworkers of the officers involved. And the investigation was complete in 56 hours over two calendar days. And two days later, they ruled the shooting was justified. I'm a retired military officer, and I was very stunned by the speed of which this occurs because I knew in my own military training and military career that typically, accident and safety investigations take far longer to conduct than that.

ELLIOTT: So you not only sued the Kenosha Police Department, but you also hired a consultant and conducted your own private investigation. What did that turn up?

BELL: We filed a civil rights lawsuit. And on March 3 - Michael's birthday - 2010, they settled the record civil rights lawsuit with our family. But I refused to accept a confidentiality agreement or a nondisclosure. And so immediately afterwards, I started raising the awareness on this, and that's why we kept pushing for a new law.

Now, as a military officer, I do understand that in a very volatile situation, sometimes things happen. But immediately after my son was killed, the police union and the state of Wisconsin gave the officers who killed my son in this cover-up a Meritorious Service Award. And at that point, I said, enough is enough. And I started to try to raise public awareness of what was going on here in the state of Wisconsin and in the city of Kenosha.

ELLIOTT: Now, because of the law that you helped push through, there will now be an outside investigation into the shooting of Jacob Blake. Attorney General Josh Kaul of Wisconsin, who was overseeing that probe, spoke with NPR. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOSH KAUL: I absolutely understand why people are skeptical. We have a history of systemic racism, and our criminal justice system is part of that. What I can tell you is that I am personally committed to making sure that this investigation's conducted vigorously and that we're pursuing justice and following the facts where they lead.

ELLIOTT: Are you reassured?

BELL: I'm very skeptic because I brought extremely credible evidence to Josh Kaul, and he wouldn't give us the time of day. And so if he's doing an about-face on this, I am bothered by that.

I want everybody to know that there are a lot of parallels between Jacob Blake and my own son. Family members watched the shooting. Both them arrived at the same hospital. When we arrived there, my son was pronounced dead. But we did not have the benefit of having an outside investigation conducted. And after fighting so hard for that law, Jacob Blake's family has that benefit that we never had.

ELLIOTT: Is it difficult seeing this happen again with all those parallels? Have you talked to the Blake family at all?

BELL: I have not talked to the Blake family. But when this happens, you're so emotionally traumatized that you don't know where to go or what to do or who to trust. And so I'm standing back, giving them their space and really look forward to meeting them at some time.

ELLIOTT: Well, Mr. Bell, thank you so much for spending time talking with us this morning.

BELL: Thank you, Debbie. I appreciate it very much.

ELLIOTT: Michael Bell Sr. is the father of Michael Bell Jr., who was shot and killed by Kenosha police in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF KODOMO'S "CONCEPT 11") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.