More Than One Lesson from Ferguson – Independent Investigations Needed
Michael Bell, 21 – Killed in Kenosha, WI 11/9/2004
Ethan Saylor, 26 – Killed in Frederick, MD 1/12/2013
Michael Brown, 18 – Killed in Ferguson, MO 8/9/2014
What do these three young men have in common? At first glance, not much. But all three were killed by someone who had taken an oath to serve and protect.
Michael Bell, after a traffic stop, was shot point blank in the head one day before he was to testify against one of the officers involved in his death. The homicide, captured on a patrol car dash cam, occurred in Bell’s driveway, in front of his mother and sister.
Ethan Saylor, an adult who had Down syndrome was confronted by off-duty sheriff’s deputies working as mall security when he refused to leave a movie theater. The three veteran officers refused to allow his caregiver to diffuse the situation. Instead they forcibly removed him from his seat and during the resulting struggle, crushed his larynx causing Saylor to die from asphyxiation.
Michael Brown’s case has become a watershed moment: the final straw for many Americans when it comes to police policy.
In each of these cases, the officers involved were not charged with any crime. Internal investigations and questionable grand jury procedures allowed the perpetrators to return to duty.
Although most commentators and protesters are concentrating on the everyday police procedures and the racial biases that exist, it’s possible that we should expand our attention to the legal ramifications (or lack thereof) of death by cop.
The father of one of these men has been fighting to change this system for 10 years. Michael Bell Sr. spent time and money conducting his own investigation into the shooting death of his son. His efforts finally paid off in April of this year when a new state law addressed the problem of police policing themselves.
On April 23rd, 2014, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a new law that was the first of its kind in the nation. The new law requires an independent investigation of police officers when someone dies or is killed while in police custody. It’s an important new law for many reasons, but none more important than the fact that police departments and officers across the county often elude accountability and transparency by conducting internal investigations of shootings and civilian deaths involving their officers. The police get to investigate themselves and determine whether a crime has been committed when someone dies in their custody. As to be expected in a system that judges its own, most police officers walk from these incidents with barely a slap on the wrist.
Michael Bell Sr. doesn’t want to stop there. “It`s not enough,” Bell said, “We need more, but it`s a start in the right direction.”
A big difference between the recent Missouri grand jury proceeding and the one that was conducted in Maryland last year is the release of information. This week, when the grand jury decision was announced, all of the evidence in the case was made public. While Brown’s family has the opportunity to review the details and testimony of their son’s killer, Saylor’s family remains in the dark, forced to file a civil suit in order to get access to the details of how their son died. Both families suffered painfully similar treatment during the grand jury process. Both families have endured victim blaming from unsympathetic members of the public.
While the reason each of these young men encountered law enforcement in the first place, and the methods of control used in each case is different, the results were the same – a life was lost. All three families have found a way to create a legacy of positive change in the aftermath of tragedy.
The Bells have championed state legislation which may now provide a blueprint for further reform. They’ve also been advocating for better data collection of officer involved injuries and deaths.
The Saylors have pressed for better training for police and other emergency responders in the area of intellectual disabilities.
The Brown family is now asking for all law enforcement officers to be required to wear video cameras.
The loss of life in each of these cases is tragic. While we press for better police procedures on the streets, we should also address the biased policies that allow these tragedies to go unpunished and unreported.
More about Michael Bell Sr. and the new law in Wisconsin:
Ten years later, we in Wisconsin passed the nation’s first law calling for outside reviews.
By MICHAEL BELL
Yamiche Alcindor, USA TODAY January 2, 2014