Father of Police Shooting Victim in Wisconsin Says Reform Requires Examining Roots of Problems, Not Just a Blame Game

Michael Bell, a retired U.S. Air Force officer, holds a picture of his son Michael Bell Jr. before the Bears-Buccaneers game on Sept. 30, 2018, at Soldier Field. Bell Jr. was shot and killed by a Kenosha, Wis., police officer in 2004.

Michael Bell has conducted a campaign for change since his son was shot by a Kenosha police officer nearly 14 years ago, and it has paid off in reform in his home state of Wisconsin. But Bell now has bigger things in mind.

He wants authorities nationwide to investigate officer-involved shootings in a new way, one that would prioritize finding the root cause of the incident and figuring out how it could have been prevented.

That’s contrary to the approach he said authorities took after his son’s killing in 2004 — prosecutors conducted a review that ruled the shooting justified, though the city later paid the Bells $1.75 million to settle a lawsuit — as well as inquiries closer to home.

“Chicago’s going through its own crisis right now relating to a police cover-up,” he said, referring to the alleged effort to obscure the details of Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s shooting of Laquan McDonald. “I think these types of covered-up investigations are a disgrace to the good officers and the families of the deceased. They’re hurting everybody.”

Bell highlighted his cause Sunday by attending the Chicago Bears game at Soldier Field wearing a jersey bearing his son’s name and photo, and the words “Killed by Kenosha Police / No police cover-ups.” He bought a ticket that gave him access to the field before the game, and knelt on the grass in what he called an act of “silent prayer and remembrance for my son.”

Along with that Colin Kaepernick-like gesture, Bell took out a full page ad in Saturday’s Chicago Tribune, criticizing Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian for the city’s response to the shooting and drawing attention to a website devoted to the incident.

The mayor’s office declined comment, but Bell said some authorities in Wisconsin have been receptive to his reform message. The city of Madison, for example, is looking into a system of “root cause analysis” that would review police shootings and other adverse events in order to prevent them.

John Hollway, who has researched that approach at the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said one Illinois jurisdiction, which he can’t name, has also shown interest in adopting such a system.

“It takes some of the blame mentality out of it,” he said. “What you really want to do is make upstream changes that lead to never getting to the situation where the gun is pulled.”

Bell’s son Michael was killed after he was pulled over by police and struggled with officers who were trying to arrest him. After one officer shouted that Bell’s son had taken his gun — a belief Bell says was in error — another shot Bell’s son in the head.

The Kenosha County district attorney ruled that the shooting was justified, and federal officials declined to review the case.

Bell said he viewed the response as a whitewash, and it prompted his campaign to change the system. He lobbied for the adoption of a Wisconsin law that requires outside agencies to investigate police shootings — Illinois passed a similar measure in 2015 — and began speaking out on how those investigations should change.

As a retired U.S. Air Force officer, he said his idea comes from the world of aviation, where the National Transportation Safety Board reviews every plane crash with an eye toward prevention. The agency shares what it learns, and as a result, the entire industry gets safer.

That’s not true in police shootings, he said. There, agencies simply look at whether a shooting was justified, and generally reveal little information behind that determination.

“You can never investigate yourself because there’s going to be an automatic, built-in bias,” he said. “I feel an officer should have the right to use deadly force if he needs to, but we should be able to go back and determine whether that deadly force needed to happen.”

Sheila Bedi, a Northwestern University Law School professor who has been involved in consent decree litigation with the Chicago Police Department, said investigations aimed at systemic improvements are appealing, but she believes an honest review would bring up subjects departments have often failed to confront.

“I think there are very specific data points that could be examined … that could identify those points at which racism, violence and over-aggressive policing tactics have contributed to an officer feeling they can shoot someone with impunity,” she said.

Hazel Crest police Chief Mitchell Davis, who is also an official with the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said many departments already review their shootings to see if anything could have been done better in the run-up to the fatal event.

“There’s a saying that bad tactics can lead to good shootings,” he said. “There are times when an officer may shoot someone and the totality of circumstances make it legal, but … the officer might have put himself in a situation where he had to use lethal force.”

He added, though, that the reviews are usually informal.

“A structured approach, could it help?” he said. “I’m sure it couldn’t hurt.”

Charles Gruber, a former police chief in Elgin and other cities, is a law enforcement consultant who lectures on “just culture,” a practice in which people are encouraged to own up to mistakes, assured they’ll be treated fairly.

That can help organizations figure out if there are problems with their procedures, he said. But so far, few police leaders or unions have shown interest in that approach, he said, fearing it will require too much work or result in undue punishment.

But he predicted “amazing” benefits for departments and communities that take the plunge.

“You can look at even minor events in this way and learn about the organization, your policy, your tactics — all the things you need to know about to make your organization and the people who work for it better,” he said. “And through that, you’ll get better outcomes.”

David Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer who teaches criminology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, has written about the concept of error avoidance reviews. He said the antagonism between police and their critics could make it difficult to adopt such a system, as problems uncovered by post-shooting reviews could be used as evidence in a lawsuit.

But he said viewing police shootings as systemic mistakes instead of a moral failing — similar to a surgeon who makes a critical mistake during an operation — could lead to better solutions.

“It’s going to take time for people to think differently and say, ‘What’s our goal here?’ ” he said. “It should be to get police to kill fewer people.”

Source: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-met-police-shooting-victim-kenosha-20181003-story.html