Public Safety & Justice

Why Wisconsin Doesn't Know Much When its Police Officers Die in the Line of Duty

by | December 13, 2013

By Gina Barton

Under the proposed legislation, Wisconsin would set statewide standards requiring outside agencies to participate in the investigations of officer-involved deaths. Wisconsin also would become the first state in the country to require a comprehensive review by a panel of experts whenever someone dies after a confrontation with police.

"Please pass this bill," Sonya Moore, the mother of Derek Williams, pleaded with members of the state Assembly's criminal justice committee. "Make sure that everyone has a voice, because if you take that away we don't have anything."

Williams died after begging for help and gasping for air in the back of a Milwaukee police squad car in 2011. Joining his mother, Sonya Moore at the hearing were loved ones of Paul Heenan, who was intoxicated and unarmed when he was fatally shot by Madison police last year, and of Michael Bell, shot point-blank in the head in front of his mother and sister by Kenosha police in 2004.

In each case, investigators from inside the department reviewed the deaths and quickly cleared the officers.

Survivors who testified Thursday described a fruitless quest for answers, accountability and justice.

Amelia Royko Maurer, Heenan's roommate, said she was emotionally damaged not only by his death, but also by her loss of faith in police.

"I blindly trusted that our police department would always do the right thing, no matter who was watching. That is the very definition of integrity," she said. "I thought we were all on the same team."

But as she read lies in police reports and uncovered the biases of internal investigators, that trust was destroyed, she said.

"The only chief who has a problem with independent oversight is the chief who won't bet his or her job on the department's honesty or sobriety," Royko Maurer said. "But they expect us to bet our lives on it."

Two people who spoke out against the bill _ Samuel Hall Jr., a Milwaukee lawyer who specializes in defending law enforcement officers around the state in civil rights litigation, and Adam Gerol, president of the Wisconsin district attorneys' association _ said the system already provides plenty of oversight of police-involved deaths.

Family members of those killed by police who think there should be further investigation can turn to the district attorney, the FBI or the U.S. attorney, Hall said.

"This is not a matter of the police chief going to look at the incident and say, 'That's about right,' and call it a day," Hall said. "The system we use in Wisconsin right now is used in other states and it works. There are multiple layers of review."

Families also can request a John Doe investigation, which allows a judge to subpoena witnesses, collect evidence and grant immunity to reluctant witnesses, Gerol said.

The elder Michael Bell, however, said he did all those things and more after his son's death but was repeatedly ignored.

"There's no place to go for help. I believe the system is broken," said Bell, who has used the $1.75 million civil settlement in his son's death to advocate for change.

Michael Tobin, executive director of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, said the city has not taken a position on the bill.

"In Milwaukee, we recognize there are problems with how police investigate themselves. We try to give more civilian oversight," Tobin said.

Tobin described recent reforms in the city, including the fact that he or one of his staffers now responds to the scene of every critical incident involving police. Those incidents include not only deaths, but also shootings and other serious uses of force.

But under questioning by Democratic state Rep. Evan Goyke, Tobin admitted that he and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn "have always been able to resolve our differences" when it comes to their investigations of police-involved deaths.

Other law enforcement representatives who testified Thursday said they were in favor of requiring outside investigation but against the formation of the state-level review board.

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, which consists mostly of smaller departments, said most of them already seek assistance investigating officer-involved deaths from either the state Department of Justice or a neighboring agency.

But the idea of an independent review panel is "fraught with problems that make it unworkable," he said.

"It's creating a bureaucratic monster where one is unnecessary," Palmer said.

His comments echoed those made earlier by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who has called the bill "unnecessary, unworkable and an expansion of government's already too burdensome bureaucracy."

The bill, AB-409, was co-sponsored by Republican state Rep. Garey Bies and Democratic state Rep. Chris Taylor.

Legislators will continue to work on the bill, perhaps adding amendments to address some of the concerns presented at Thursday's hearing, committee chair Rep. Joel Kleefisch said.

(John Diedrich of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.)

(c)2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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