John Nichols: Making Investigations Of Shootings By The Police Open, Transparent, Independent

By John Nichols
The Nation (3/9/15)

President Obama spoke in Selma Sunday about the past and the present, making a link between the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the contemporary movement to address the killings of unarmed African-American men by police officers in so many communities across this country. The president reminded the crowd that “citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago—the protection of the law.”

Unfortunately, the laws that are needed are not always in place; as a result, one of the first questions that arises after an officer-involved death is: “Are the police going to investigate the police?

This is a critical question—so much so that one of the chief recommendations of the president’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing was for independent investigations of police-involved deaths.

In Madison, Wisconsin, where a 19-year-old African-American man was shot and killed Friday night by a local police officer, there’s a better answer to the question than in most places, thanks to state Representative Chris Taylor.

Taylor was on Madison’s Williamson Street Friday night when Tony Robinson, who police acknowledge was unarmed, was killed. She was getting gas as a nearby station when the shots that took Robinson’s life were fired. She has been present as activists with groups such as the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition have demanded a rethink of policing practices with a series of demonstrations that have filled the streets and, on Monday, the rotunda of the state Capitol.

But Taylor’s connection to what the legislator refers to as an “unspeakable tragedy,” and with the policing issues that have been raised, runs deeper.

Several years ago, after the shooting in the same neighborhood of a white unarmed young man, Paul Heenan, an internal investigation by the Madison Police Department determined that the officer involved had not violated department policies or procedures. That raised a community outcry; there were protests, petitions and calls for a better system of investigating shootings by police officers.

Bringing a little more confidence to the process

Their voices joined a broader chorus of Wisconsinites calling for independent reviews of police shootings—a chorus that included Michael Bell, whose son was killed in 2004 by police in Kenosha. No officer was charged with wrongdoing in the death of Michael Bell Jr., but the Bell family received nearly $1.75 million in a settlement with the city. Michael Bell became a prominent campaigner for an independent-review law. He did not portray it as a panacea, but he would suggest that such legislation could provide “a little more confidence” in the process.

“What this is about, too, is moving from internal affairs of a particular police department to outside the department,” Bell would explain. “[Opponents of the change] say [the status quo] is a good check and balance, and we’re saying it’s not. That’s why we’re moving it outside.”

Taylor heard the chorus. And she determined to make the change. It was not easy. She was serving her first full term as a state representative. She was a progressive Democrat in an overwhelmingly conservative and overwhelmingly Republican Assembly. But Taylor is not easily dissuaded.

Trust and transparency

The Madison attorney started looking for a Republican ally. She found one in Garey Bies, a former deputy sheriff from Sister Bay in Door County. Two years ago, the pair proposed Assembly Bill 409, which was written to require that investigations of officer-involved deaths be led by investigators from outside the police agencies with which the officers serve. The bill also proposed that families of shooting victims be informed of their legal rights and that the results of investigations that do not lead to criminal charges be made public.

“Law enforcement officers have one of the hardest jobs in the world and are confronted with life-threatening situations on a regular basis,” argued Taylor and Bies. “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.”

Bipartisan effort

The Republican state attorney general opposed the bill. Yet Taylor and Bies assembled a coalition of supporters that included the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the Badger Sheriffs Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. And Taylor kept talking to Republican legislators with whom she frequently clashed on other issues.

Remarkably, in a time of so many partisan and ideological divisions, the bill advanced. In the spring of 2014, after securing unanimous support in the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate, this quite progressive piece of legislation was signed into law by the very conservative Governor Scott Walker.

Taylor and Bies said the governor would “make history by signing this critical bill, making Wisconsin the first state in the nation to require an independent investigation of officer-involved deaths.”

Since that signing occurred in the spring of 2014, legislators in other states have begun looking for ways in which to get this piece of the criminal-justice equation right.

Just this past weekend, when so many gathered in Selma to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of a great turning point in the struggle for racial justice in America, an Alabama legislator was interviewed on MSNBC about where the struggle stands today. She spoke of fights over voting rights and so many other issues. Yet she also spoke, hopefully, of efforts to pass legislation to provide for independent review of officer-involved deaths.

When Alabama state Representative Merika Coleman-Evans began talking about the Alabama initiative in January, the Associated Press reported that “The proposal is part of a wave of legislation being introduced across the country in the wake of protests over police killings in Missouri and New York.”

Wisconsin’s law was on the books before the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City sparked protests that gained national attention.

Now, as news of a shooting in Madison draws national attention, Wisconsin’s law has provided at least a measure of breathing space in a difficult moment.

When the Robinson shooting occurred, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval announced, “Obviously in light of the fact that we are completely bound by state law, which indicates that an independent oversight and investigation should be conducted outside of the Madison Police Department, we respected that from the moment we took the scene, froze the scene, and waited for the DCI to arrive.” …

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