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

Aug 30, 2020
Originally published on August 30, 2020 7:30 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:

More people in the streets of Kenosha this weekend - this time, a march led by members of Jacob Blake's family. Blake is in the hospital. His family says he's paralyzed. Kenosha police Officer Rusten Sheskey, responding to a domestic dispute Sunday, shot Blake seven times in the back. Yesterday's demonstration called for racial justice and an end to police brutality. We're joined now by Kenosha's mayor, John Antaramian.

Mayor, good morning. Thank you for coming on the program.

JOHN ANTARAMIAN: Good morning. Not a problem. Glad to be here.

ELLIOTT: There have been protesters in Kenosha's streets every night since the shooting, with violence and widespread damage earlier in the week, including two people killed by an armed civilian. Now President Trump is saying he is on his way there this week. How are you preparing for a presidential visit? And will that kind of attention be good or bad for Kenosha?

ANTARAMIAN: Well, realistically, from our perspective, our preference would've been for him not to be coming at this point in time. All presidents are always welcome, and campaign issues are always going on. But it would've been, I think, better had he waited for another time to come.

ELLIOTT: How were things overnight there?

ANTARAMIAN: Actually very peaceful. The Blake family was - had the vigil. They basically talked - the majority of them talking about peaceful protesting, which is exactly what they should be doing and exactly what the city of Kenosha appreciates happening. Peaceful protests are not a problem. Our biggest problem really did come from people coming from outside the area and causing a great deal of damage and destruction.

There is always a need for dialogue in these situations, and the community needs to have a very heart-to-heart talk with itself as to some of the issues that we do face. But it's not the situation I think that people perceive that the people in Kenosha are rioting and doing that. They are protesting and absolutely have every right to protest, and we support their ability to protest. We don't support the damage and destruction that people are doing. As I said, the majority of that, from what we've seen, has come from the outside. And so that is very discouraging.

Now the real issue is, how do we heal? How do we create the situation where we get an honest dialogue? I always tell people - my father used to always say, people always talk. The real issue is, is anyone listening? And I think that really is the key for us - is that we need to start listening to people and dealing with the issues that they see. And therefore, we will be a better community from it. We will come back from this stronger, and we will rebuild. And we will have a better conversation as to what we need to do. So that's...

ELLIOTT: I want to ask you now, if I could, a little bit about your police chief, Daniel Miskinis. He's been fielding some tough questions about why his officers didn't do anything to stop that armed civilian, Kyle Rittenhouse, after two protesters were shot dead and another wounded. He's been steadfast this week that his officers behaved properly, even as recently as Friday's press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DANIEL MISKINIS: There was nothing to suggest that this person was involved in any criminal behavior. He continued. He made contact near the officer's door. And you can hear on the recording I heard that the officers were telling him to get out of the road. Clearly, they're not seeing him as a suspect or a threat of any kind.

ELLIOTT: Briefly - we have about 30 seconds left - is that how you understand the situation? And does the police chief have your confidence?

ANTARAMIAN: The police chief does have my confidence, and this is an issue that will be reviewed and looked at as to how this all occurred. But I think the other part of it is that you have to remember at the time that this was going on, officers were responding to shots fired all over the area. And I don't believe they understood at the time what was happening with actually someone down at the moment. So they were trying to do what they need to do.

However, I don't - you know, I was not there, and I'm not going to just sit here and say if we should've done it differently or not. We will look into the issue, and we will make a determination and make sure that whatever occurred was done correctly, number one, and number two, that if things like this happen, we need to make sure that they don't happen again.

ELLIOTT: Thank you so much. That's Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian.

Thank you for being with us.

ANTARAMIAN: Sure. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.