WI could be first to require independent investigations of officer-involved deaths
By: Rep. Chris Taylor & Rep. Garey Bies
In any profession, investigating possible criminal conduct of colleagues is daunting. In policing, investigating colleagues is especially challenging given that officers may depend on their colleagues for their individual personal safety. Bias or the perception of bias inevitably creeps in, and this could erode the public trust in law enforcement and ultimately, law enforcement’s ability to do their job.
Yet, it is common practice for law enforcement agencies to conduct the criminal investigations into their own officer’s conduct and potential criminality when an officer- involved death occurs.
Assembly Bill 409, which passed the Legislature and is headed to Governor Scott Walker’s desk, would end this practice by requiring the investigation include two individuals from outside the police agency involved, one of whom must serve as lead investigator. Additionally, the victim’s family must be informed of their legal rights and the investigation must be publicly released should no criminal charges result against the officer involved.
The necessity of this bill has been building for decades. In the Madison community, Paul Heenan, an unarmed civilian, was shot on the sidewalk in front of his home by a Madison police officer in November, 2012. While no charges were filed against the officer involved, he voluntarily resigned when his own police chief made allegations of 118 violations of 13 different department policies, though none relating to Mr. Heenan’s death.
Before Paul Heenan was the death of Derek Williams, who suffocated to death in 2011 while in the back of a police car. Even when a Milwaukee Inquest Jury found “probable cause” that several officers committed crimes in failing to assist Mr. Williams, a special prosecutor refused to charge.
And before Derek Williams was Michael Bell, Jr., another unarmed man who, in 2004, was shot and killed by a Kenosha police officer in front of his home. The cover-up in the Bell case resulted in a $1.75 million dollar civil lawsuit settlement, while not a single officer involved in the shooting was ever charged with a crime.
In fact, according to the most comprehensive research of which we are aware, in the last 125 years, only a few police officers have ever been charged criminally in a civilian death. Without an unbiased, independent investigation, this impossible statistic will continue.
Law enforcement officers have one of the hardest jobs in the world and are confronted with life-threatening situations on a regular basis. Yet their ability to do their jobs depends on the trust of their community. This bill reasonably balances these realities with a uniform statewide structure to ensure a better process when officer-involved deaths occur anywhere in Wisconsin. This improved process will strengthen trust between law enforcement and communities.
Assembly Bill 409 is a bipartisan effort, and the result of collaboration with law enforcement, families and community advocates. This is a consensus bill, supported by the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the Badger Sheriffs Association and the ACLU. A recent public opinion poll conducted by the WPPA indicated 81 percent of Wisconsinites support an independent investigation of an officer-involved death.
Assembly Bill 409 passed the State’s Assembly and Senate on unanimous voice votes and is now headed to Governor Walker. As the authors of AB-409, we are hopeful that Governor Walker will make history by signing this critical bill, making Wisconsin the first state in the nation to require an independent investigation of officer-involved deaths.
Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) lives in the community where Paul Heenan was shot. Rep. Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay) is a former Chief Deputy Sheriff.